We tend not to think of Departments of Transportation as hotbeds of innovation. And that’s too bad. Because state DOTs in a handful of cases have been active in creating vibrant, bike and transit-connected places (see Minneapolis and Davis, California—considered the most bike friendly cities in America). This is a story about how DOTs overcame Cold War-era thinking, and, just maybe, are seeing generational turnover happen sooner than others.
A new report from Smart Growth America and State Smart Transportation Initiative shows how DOTs can be responsible for new ideas. “The Innovative DOT: a handbook of policy and practice” (3rd edition) should act as inspiration to states like Ohio, which is conspicuously absent from its pages, on how to move toward change. The report makes the case that:
"DOTs can support state priorities by setting meaningful goals that are measurable and useful for enacting policies and making day-to-day decisions."
The problem, as SGA sees it, comes from either an atmosphere that doesn’t reward innovation, or worse, a long epoch where DOTs acted like monofilaments (after all, some still call themselves highway departments). True innovation means people recognize that conditions are always changing. To whit:
“But many DOTs lack the technical resources or the decision-making authority to explore the connection between transportation and land use, economic development, and other state concerns in a meaningful way."
The modern DOT introduces policies such as complete streets and alters their long-range plans to reflect a new land-use/transportation nexus. DOTs that innovate align their plans and funding to reduce the cost of transportation. Or as Al Biehler, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, writes:
“How can I provide travelers and shippers the best access to destinations, at the least cost in terms of dollars, time, and environmental/community impact?”
This "least-cost" framework will certainly lead to a re-examining of where ODOT invests. The report details how DOTs create an atmosphere of innovation and then back it up—with dedicated funding. Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Wisconsin, for example, have all used fees on vehicle registration or fuel taxes to pay for more transit.
Some DOTs simply invite multiple stakeholders, including transit agencies, to have a seat at the table when discussing how road projects can serve their common cause of relieving traffic congestion.
“By working more closely with their partners in the transit world, DOTs may be able to achieve better system performance with smaller investments and meet their constituents’ desire for more choices.”
Innovation is not a word many have used to describe Ohio’s DOT. This report illustrates why. Since 2008, ODOT has chronically underfunded transit, a lifeline to economic opportunity for metros as they find new uses for their post-industrial landscapes. (Evidence is the proliferation of streetcar and—following Cleveland’s example—bus-rapid transit lines that have sprouted up in nearly every major American city). Is it any wonder that growth occurs faster in states like Minnesota, California, North Carolina and New Jersey—all homes to the “innovative” DOTs featured here?
The report goes into great detail about those new ideas. Again, funding mechanisms that have come into play—such as developer impact fees for adding a lane to a road when a private party directly benefits—are a central theme.
Similarly, North Carolina is asking the private sector to help pay for the “value capture” of being near a new Charlotte commuter rail line. Public private partnerships act as incentives for metro areas who want to build projects that encourage low and zero carbon modes of transportation (like Indianapolis had in the building of its transformational Cultural Trail).
Or even something as fiscally conservative as Michigan’s DOT creating a database of pavement conditions to inform how it funds projects (Michigan was able to forecast that its current road building plans are unsustainable).
Ohio needs to join this conversation about who benefits in a regional context when it agrees to add new roads like Opportunity Corridor. If the Innovative DOT has any lessons to share with ODOT, it will be that highway departments are no longer sufficient to supply metros with the lifeblood of the new economy. Innovation is more than an idea to the many small businesses and residents moving into Ohio’s metros—they seek proximity and access to ideas and capital with a lower cost burden. Thriving markets need mobility options. And that’s why The Innovative DOT should be required reading at ODOT and every Metropolitan Planning Organization and city leadership council in Ohio.