MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

November 4, 2013

MassDOT’s recently issued Healthy Transportation Policy Directive could actualize the most profound transformation in the state’s transportation system since the anti-highway movement convinced Governor Frank Sargent to cancel the massive Inner Belt project (the first time any state had done this) and his Transportation Secretary, Alan Altshuler, got the state’s Congressional delegation to pass legislation allowing Highway Fund money to be used for mass transit.   If carried through, it will push Massachusetts to the front of national efforts to modernize our transportation infrastructure.

On the other hand, the Directive is neither a law nor a court decree, merely an internal order issued by the current Transportation Secretary.  Its requirement that “all MassDOT funded or designed projects shall seek to increase and encourage more pedestrian, bicycle, and transit trips” could be legally ignored or (more likely) turned into an empty ritual as soon as the next governor gets elected.

But in the meantime, MassDOT Secretary Rich Davey is taking his Directive seriously.  Having the policy simultaneously signed by the heads of the Highway Division, Planning Office, MBTA, and even Aeronautics which sends a message to staff that anyone still clinging to traditional car-centric priorities will no longer have upper-level allies.  Even more important, Davey is also aggressively moving the multi-modal vision from policy to procedures, embedding new criteria into decision-making processes such as changing the way project proposals are evaluated and impact assessments are done.  And at the level of organizational culture, all this top-level posturing has the additional effect of emboldening those staff members who have bought into the new vision.

MassDOT’s transformation is not complete or assured.  At the Central Office, the small group of outside people brought in to develop a framework for sustainability planning expressed in both the GreenDOT operational suggestions and the Mode Shift policies have moved back out to non-MassDOT jobs and will be hard to replace.  Even more fundamentally, most of MassDOT’s road design and construction oversight is actually done in the six Highway Department District offices, whose staffs work closely with local Transportation Departments which are often reluctant to deviate from past car-centric priorities.  Other than the District Director and his/her Assistant Directors there are no authorized “change champions” in the District offices – people empowered to push for decision-making, design, operational, and attitudinal changes needed to fully implement the state’s Complete Streets and Mode Shift policy goals.  There is a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator in each District, but few have much experience creating state-of-the-art bicycle and walking facilities.  Transit planning is done by the 15 separate Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs), whose boundaries differ from the Highway Districts, and it isn’t always clear how transit needs are integrated with road designs.  The absence in most towns outside metro-Boston of ped-bike-transit Advocacy groups, or even Advisory Councils, deprives District staff of vital feedback and insights – as well as a vital source of local political support for effort’s to break out of the District offices’ past practices.

Nonetheless, the Healthy Transportation Directive, along with Secretary Davey’s efforts to institutionalize the new orientation, is a giant step towards accomplishing the third leg of Transportation Reform.  The first leg was creating a coordinated transportation system, pulling our scattered and warring transportation agencies into one organization.  The second leg was putting the system on a more sustainable and adequate financial footing – something that has not yet been accomplished (especially given the Legislature’s repeal, without any replacement, of the software-tax component of the already inadequate 2013 Transportation Financing bill).  The third leg, the one that makes the other two worthwhile, is using the consolidated governance structure and financing to create a 21st century transportation system.  It’s good to see it moving forward.

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THE ECONOMIC IMPERATIVE

The Healthy Transportation Policy Directive is officially derived from the Healthy Transportation Compact section of the state’s 2009 Transportation Reform Act and from the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solution’s Act.   The later, requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, was itself shaped by a 2001 regional Climate Change Action Plan negotiated among the New England States and eastern Canadian Provinces and the subsequent Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) signed by Governors of northeastern states from Maryland to Maine.

However, the deeper driver, and one reason why Massachusetts’ next governor may leave the Directive in place, is powerfully articulated by Secretary Davey in economic development terms:  any chance Massachusetts has for future prosperity both depends on and will result in increased transportation in a context where it is simply no longer possible to build highways.  If we want to have more jobs and population we have to find non-automotive ways to move the growing number of people and things.

This fundamental shift, reversing the previous assumption that car-based transportation was the driver of economic growth, is the reason two other Cabinet-level Secretaries – Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Gregory Bialecki, and Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard Sullivan Jr. – as well as MassPort CEO Tom Glynn all came to the recent Moving Together conference to say they’re bringing their own agencies around to support the same vision, embodied in the Patrick Administration’s Planning Ahead For Growth effort to coordinate transportation and land use planning.

THE URBAN IMPERATIVE

And the foci of the growth they all desire is increasingly urban:  the Boston region, some of the Gateway Cities, even the “town centers” of various suburbs.  Metro Boston already generates nearly two-thirds of the state’s GDP.   Stephanie Pollack, of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center (full disclosure:  she and I are both on the LivableStreets Alliance board) points out that the focus is even tighter:  the “transit shed” of walkable distances from MBTA trolley and bus lines includes only 4% of the region’s land but contains 22% of its population, and about 28% of those households don’t even own a car.  Car travel will continue to be useful for many people some of the time, but it will not be the engine for future development.

Despite the constant complaining from car drivers that our roads are increasingly congested, Ms. Pollack points out that the real overcrowding is on our subways, buses, bike paths, and sidewalks.    As growth continues to consolidate in transit-rich areas, as Millennials and Boomers continue to move to places that support a more active life style, as the “property-sharing” economy makes ownership of vehicles (and office space) less necessary, these components of our transportation system will become further overburdened and an economic drag – unless we focus on their improvement.

THE DIRECTIVE’S TEETH

Economic development is why the new Healthy Transportation Policy is so important, and has a chance of surviving the next election no matter who takes office.  But even before that transition, the Directive not only makes its goals clear, it also begins to integrate them into routine procedures – the real key to operationalization.  It requires that “all projects currently under MassDOT design oversight” except those already in the construction bid and work process be reviewed for “conformance with the specifications and spirit” of the new Policy by the end of 2013.  And it states (the underline is in the original!) that “projects should not advance in the design process until they have undertaken this review” – an amazing requirement compared to the usual demand to move things along.  Projects that “fail to provide facilities for healthy transportation modes [walking, bicycling, and taking transit],” other than limited access and Interstate Highways, can proceed only if they get a special signoff from the Secretary.

In addition, “all design notices and public communication for projects” must describe what bike/ped/transit facilities are within the project area as well as any “existing or proposed [healthy transportation] networks within a 2-mile radius…[including] critical connections to downtowns or transit facilities.”  It states that “in urbanized areas,” and on “every bridge, overpass or underpass… sidewalks [shall be included] on both sides of the road, even if comparable facilities do not yet exist on the abutting road segments.”  And in all areas “wherever adjacent land uses include commercial development or residential development of greater than five units per acre, a sidewalk should be provided along the roadway adjacent…Design features to consider shall include, but not [be] limited to: wider sidewalks, street trees, landscaped buffers, benches, lighting, frequent crossing opportunities and strong intermodal connectivity to transit.”

The Directive includes not only new construction but also the more frequent “retrofit and maintenance….pavement restoration and resurfacing projects” requiring that they “seek to add facilities that increase and encourage healthy transportation…including opportunities to meet ADA compliance.”

Any location with “clustered incident [accident] sites” involving pedestrians, cyclists, or people using transit, starting in Environmental Justice communities, will get a safety audit to “improve customer safety for more vulnerable users” – the start, perhaps, of Safe Routes To The T program or Safe Routes for Seniors programs!  Just as important: “this process shall include the development of metrics for success and identify a reasonable completion date” for each location.

Trail and path advocates will be happy that the Directive builds on the Secretary’s previous letter allowing “rail-with-trail” projects by ordering the creation of a guide for “shared use paths on or along rail beds…[including] along active or future railroad rights-of-way…”

Finally, the Director allows designers to go beyond the traditional road engineering “bibles” put out by national highway officials to also consider ideas from the progressive National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).   (Hopefully, MassDOT will also encourage traffic engineers to use Boston’s new Complete Streets Guidelines as another source of ideas.)

NEXT STEPS

The very strength of the Healthy Transportation Policy Directive means that full implementation will require significant additional reform of decision-making criteria and process within MassDOT as well as in other public bodies that impact the state’s transportation infrastructure and regulation.  The 13 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), composed of representatives from both state agencies and municipal governments that set transportation funding priorities in each region of the state, have traditionally favored road expansion projects desired by local commercial developers.   The MPOs have a huge backlog of old road-building requests, and even if they are subject to the Directive’s all-modes review and revision most of them will remain fundamentally car-focused.  It will be politically difficult to dump these long-desired projects in favor of more balanced efforts.

The state’s contractors, the people who actually build things, will simply keep doing what they’ve always done without very clear new instructions, training, and oversight, perhaps including visits to best-practice sites that include appropriate construction-period mitigation.   MassDOT also needs more leverage expanding the fortunately growing but still too small number of municipal Transportation Directors who aren’t still stuck with their head in the gas tank.  And it’s not always obvious that all of MassDOT’s own staff has the training, experience, or desire to impose the new direction on their long-time colleagues in the construction industry.

Key to the sustainability of the new policy, and its full implementation, is the activation of public support.  It is partly the job of Advocacy Groups and individual concerned citizens in every part of the state to get involved.  But MassDOT, the MPOs, and the RTAs could significantly help the process of public engagement by creating, and providing training for, “Mode Shift Advisory Councils” composed of ped-bike-bus-train users and advocates with the authority to review all plans and make suggestions for multi-modal improvements.  (The Advisory Councils might also include representatives of local family or pediatric medical groups or local Public Health Boards as well as members of local Environmental or Climate action groups.)

MassDOT is embarked on a complicated and multi-leveled evolution.  We should not be surprised or disappointed that it is happening slowly.  And there are some extremely hopeful signs that the change is taking root:  for example, the about-to-be-released 10-year interim plans for McGrath Highway in Somerville incorporate state-of-the-art improvements for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.    (For details, go to the Public Meeting on November 13, 6pm, at the Argenziano School, 290 Washington St, Somerville – and remember that this doesn’t settle the long-term plans for the outmoded highway or guarantee progress on the Community Path component of the Green Line Extension.)   But we should not forget that the McGrath interim victory only occurred because Advocates organized and spoke out, Somerville Mayor Curtatone and his staff pushed, MassDOT’s project managers were open to new ideas, good consultants were hired, and MassDOT leaders in both District 4 and the Central Office were willing to give the process the time and resources it needed.

If our goal is to duplicate those conditions everywhere else, the Healthy Transportation Policy Directive is a positive step.

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Related previous postings:

> INTERGRATING VISION INTO OPERATIONS: Balancing Front-Line Empowerment With Organizational Priorities at MassDOT

> ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION CREATES HEALTHY COMMUNITIES: How To Use Your Roads To Lower Your Doctor (and Insurance) Bills

> NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

> MODE SHIFT AMPLIFIERS: The Importance of the Out-of-Vehicle Experience

> THE ART OF TRANSPORTATION (AND URBAN) PLANNING: Going Beyond the Technical Specs

3 Comments to "MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both"

  1. Alan French wrote:

    the picture you paint regarding the impact of Mass. DOT Districts and RPAs accords with my experience.
    Never the less, the grass roots must continue the process, one project at a time, until a critical mass is reached. One such local project concerns the Route 114 and 133 intersection in North Andover and a major campus expansion project at Merrimack College. I’m an advocate for badly needed bike/ped crossings here.
    It’s heavy going – could use any help you can give.

  2. Bruce Chafee wrote:

    Until the civil engineers’ handbook describes (prescribes?) modern, Danish-style cycle tracks (on the sidewalk, please!), no progress will occur. Reason: engineers’ (justified) fear of lawsuit over acting outside that book. Conclusion: Focus advocacy efforts on this crucial document!

  3. Steve Miller wrote:

    Bruce: Thanks for the comment. You are right: engineers are, understandably, reluctant to deviate from the “authorized” patterns since they can be held liable for any problems with their work and “he didn’t follow standard practice” is a very powerful attack. The problem is that the official “engineering bible” writing bodies are generally enmeshed within organizations that have traditionally been focused on (Interstate) highway construction or that are otherwise focused on serving car and truck traffic. It is no accident that more innovative efforts had to go “outside normal channels” to create their own manuals, such as the two NACTO guides on street and bicycle facility design or the Complete Streets guidelines put out by that national coalition. The good news is that the mainstream bodies are slowly responding, if only to keep from becoming irrelevant. Yes, we should try to reform the AASHTO Green Book or the Federal Highway Administration’s MUCCD, but we should also keep working on the alternatives — and then pressuring not only MassDOT but also DCR and local municipalities to endorse the entire range of possibilities. Steve

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