The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is a new agency, created in 2009 out of the integration of mode-specific transportation-related agencies. The structural change reflects current thinking in transportation projects as well as adheres better to new and upcoming financial, legislative, and regulatory environments. Though the agency has a single executive office, the structures of the departments are largely intact from their previous iterations. This presents challenges to short-term organizational change but also an opportunity. The legislation that created MassDOT required an office of sustainability, and that initiative has created space for a paradigm shift in the goals of the agency, how it implements projects, and how it frames its mission to its employees and constituents. “We’d never been a DOT, which was very freeing because states that have had DOTs forever there are a lot of layers to peel back,” said Catherine Cagel, a project manager. “We didn’t want to see it as limited to traditional transportation silos. We want to promote healthy transportation.”
In the history of state government involvement in transportation policy, iterations of the overseeing agency have moved from creating and maintaining public space, to focusing on infrastructure development for specific modes of travel. As MassDOT, the agency it has returned to the role of serving the public good. This shift is significant, from physical infrastructure to constituent needs, and has required a new cultural infrastructure in the agency in order to fulfill the new mission. “What we are doing is cultural change and messaging, about what your job is and how our jobs all fit together,” Cagel confirms.
In 1893, the legislature created the three-member Massachusetts Highway Commission, with the mission “to improve the public roads, and to define its powers and duties.” The Commission was successful; by 1919 when there was reorganization, it had grown in its scope and mission. As the newly renamed Department of Public Works, the agency was “to be in charge of a commissioner and four associate commissioners, two to be in charge of the Division of Highways and two to be in charge of the Division of Waterways and Public Lands, the commissioner to appoint a registrar of motor vehicles.” Its core values were focused on infrastructure and operations in three categories: “road work, the registration of motor vehicles and the licensing of the operators thereof, as well as the investigation of automobile accidents.”
The Department continued until 1991. During the intervening years, new forms of transportation and new delivery systems came into being: airports, ferries, parkways, interstates, turnpikes, and transit. The Department had overseen the building and maintenance of the interstates and the upgrading of state highways to near interstate-design standards, but other forms of transportation were their own agency, focused on its own mode of travel. (The turnpike was a separate legal entity because its funding source was different, though it was functionally an interstate.)
The department changed its name to the MassHighway to reflect its growing singular mission of providing safe high-speed travel on roads managed or owned by the state. MassHighway was the largest and most powerful (politically and financially) of the transportation agencies.
Land use and transportation are inextricably tied; the amount of infrastructure and options fuel the value of space. The scale of infrastructure also often corresponds to the scale of the communities surrounding it. Highways bring large scale buildings, eating up land at exponential rates. Thirty-five foot wide two-way city streets usually serve compact communities. There is constant pressure to increase the size of streets to adhere to safety and/or higher rates of traffic flow. This in turn often renders communities unwalkable. In the 20th century, the state (and the nation) had chosen to plan its land use fully around the automobile. The agency did little in regard to communities or sustainability; its de facto role was to create and maintain limited-access four-lane separated highways as the design paradigm. These were no longer “public works”; the infrastructure had come to serve the singular use of the automobile and thus serving those with the desire and means to acquire and maintain a vehicle. The name change simply reflected this reality.
This existence of separate mode-focused continued until 2009, when the state reorganized and merged their transportation agencies into a single agency, reflecting a renaissance of thinking about how our infrastructures affect land-use planning, healthy communities, the health of populations, and our reliance on fossil fuels. Thinking has shifted from infrastructure to the people the use it and the communities through which it passes. The legislative process that created MassDOT and the GreenDOT directive was a response to changing demographics, constituent demands, and a new financial reality after a generation of system expansion.
There are national trends that all states are contending with. More people are choosing healthy transportation options and the view of biking and walking is rapidly changing from a recreational to commuter use. Since 2005, a key metric of future road growth, vehicle miles traveled, has been dropping. Population shifts are taking place that have increased desires to be closer to urban centers and increased the demand of residential space near transit lines. The costs of ownership for private automobiles have steadily increased. The baby boom generation is driving less due to retirement and age. There has been a marked reduction in car ownership among the young, and a rise in car sharing. These factors play into the long term competitiveness of the state–its ability to keep existing and draw new residents and business—as being seen as responsive to constituent needs.
Massachusetts though is also running up against hard realities that are specific to the state. The existing infrastructure is nearing saturation point. Though the population will continue to grow—projected at 8% in the next decade–a corresponding rise among all modes would be physically difficult within existing technical benchmarks. Some population growth can be accommodated by adding the mode-shifting options that GreenDOT strives for instead of expansion.
Funding for infrastructure is increasingly difficult. Costs have risen due to complexity, and an overall cost rise in labor and materials. Expansion in most areas would require expensive property purchases. Real estate values in the state have risen exponentially in the past 20 years. The state has expanded transportation infrastructure to the point that it is facing increasing funding shortfalls for maintenance. Most new projects are paid for by debt, in the form of bonds, and Massachusetts is second in nation for debt to state GDP ratio, currently at about 20%. Income sources for transportation are stagnant; the state gas tax rate hasn’t risen in 20 years, and revenue is projected to increasingly drop as vehicle miles traveled lowers and vehicles use less fuel due to efficiency gains.
The state is also grappling with larger ecological issues that it plays a part, and its citizens have consistently shown the political will to participate in solutions. Climate change is connected to fossil fuel burning, much of which happens through the transportation sector. Multiple agencies and institutions have given reduction targets, in addition to federal government mandates for air quality, other regulations, connected to fossils fuel burning. For example, emissions from cars contribute 88% of the US share of carbon dioxide, 56% of all carbon monoxide, and 55% of our share of oxides of nitrogen. Though advances in vehicle technologies may reduce emissions, the pressure to use land in accordance with the needs to the automobile would continue to increase if that is the only option presented to constituents as viable.
Pressure is also happening from other agencies and disciplines. Transportation choice has been proven to be connected to individual and public health, specifically to combat rise in diabetes and obesity. A North Carolina study found that those who utilize transit were 81 percent less likely to become obese in their lifetime.
Finally the transportation field is changing. New engineering standards are becoming more widely adopted by cities and towns, and organizations like National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Complete Streets Coalition are creating new guidelines that challenge existing standards.
Taking advantage of the combination of these significant changes, the legislation built the new agency on sustainable practices and policies; every part of the agency is being reviewed and subject to the implementation of a new directive: GreenDOT—supported and guided by several legislative efforts, from sources other than transportation:
• Climate Protection and Green Economy Act (Mass. Gen. L. c. 21N)
• Green Communities Act (Chapter 169 of the Acts of 2008)
• Healthy Transportation Compact (section 33 of Chapter 25 of the Acts of 2009)
• Leading by Example (Executive Order of Governor Patrick, no. 488)
• MassDOT’s youMove Massachusetts planning initiative
• The “Complete Streets” design standards of the 2006 MassDOT Highway
Division Project Development and Design Guide, as amended
Rather than put the infrastructure first, MassDOT is founded on “customer service”; transportation planners, engineers, designers, and policy makers now design in the context of “healthy communities”. The GreenDOT directive states MassDOT “will be a national leader in promoting sustainability in the transportation sector.” And they will “[make] sustainability an integral part of every MassDOT employee’s job, and by integrating these objectives into our organizational vision and mission.”
The directive was issued in June 2010, and an implementation plan with sixteen sustainability goals organized under seven sustainability themes was released in December 2012. It was developed in collaboration with each division. During those 18 months, the project manager implementing GreenDOT sought the advice from a spectrum of stakeholders. She reached outside the agency to transportation advocacy groups early on and engaged internal team members. The executive level had issued the directive, and entry-level employees would be enthusiastic. It was the long-time employees and the citizen groups watching over the agency whose support would be needed to be successful in changing the culture at MassDOT.
Forming Broader Networks
MassDOT may need to go further. GreenDOT has largely been encompassed around change at MassDOT. However the goals of the initiative are woven through land use, health, and the environment, in addition to transportation infrastructure that MassDOT is charged to oversee. The ultimate success of the initiative may rest with developing action networks with state agencies that coordinate land use, health, and the environment and their correlated advocacy groups.
Developing the Right Rewards
The GreenDOT initiative aims to reduce energy use, raise transportation equity, and lower health impacts of transportation. It builds these aims into the new organization implementation. It is exhaustive in looking at the overview of how the agency can become more “sustainable.” Much of the plan focuses on goals that are generic enough that they could be applied to any state agency seeking to increase their environmental performance by reducing waste, lowering their effect on air quality, or accommodating multiple forms of transportation. One section describes replacing light bulbs with more energy efficient versions. Another provides the goal of centralizing energy use reporting so there can be clear picture of reduction targets. Another suggests using spray paint only in filtered booths. Additionally there are proposals to plant native vegetation around agency-owned buildings and holding meetings near transit stops. While all of these portions of the implementation will lead to better environmental performance, they are not much of a culture change as much as they are a routine change.
GreenDOT could be reworked to focus on mode-shift and land-use, while putting more general goals to an overarching state government initiative coordinated by the Department of Environmental Protection. GreenDOT could then reward for the transportation-related goals instead of hoping they are achieved in conjunction with departmental operating practices.
Adopting New Standards & Reframing
My focus is on the Planning, Policy, and Design section of the GreenDOT implementation plan. This is the area that focuses on mode shift and road diets, specifically the shift within the Highway Department and the increasing inner-agency power of the MBTA and those seeking “complete streets.” Effective land use is always predicated on type, level, and quality of transportation, as it forms the critical infrastructure that makes land most valuable for development. Performance indicators of infrastructure of modern engineering standards, which have been in place for a generation, effectively rule out new or replacement infrastructure to support walkable neighborhoods for urban areas with a large volume of traffic. This is the area most challenging to GreenDOT. This is the intersection of the drivers of change. It is the place where the agency can remove competing commitments.
Even though Massachusetts is state where most of the population lives in “urban” areas—defined by density, contextually, most are not walkable and have poor transit service levels. Much of the population has little choice but to rely on the use of the automobile to do daily commuting and conduct household outings. To put this in perspective, Massachusetts uses twice as much energy per capita in transportation as Washington DC–even though much of DC is built on a similar neighborhood scale as the “urban” areas of Massachusetts. DC can achieve this partially because of a robust subway system, interconnected with bus lines, a general lack of urban highways, and a more walkable environment. It can also achieve this because it is a single city; the planning zoning can work with transportation. MassDOT must contend with 351 cities and town, each with their own demands. “We’re seeing communities insist to have wide travel lanes. Every community is different. We have 351 towns and cities in the state. That changes how projects can happen.” Cagel said.
MassDOT, with their focus on customer service, wants to be open to what constituents want. This is new to a department historically closed off from decision making, both internally and externally. “It’s a big change when you’ve had an organization that’s basically militaristic, links of the chain, to where one link gets the message and everyone is supposed to know it, to all of a sudden, something come along like GreenDOT as well as transportation reform,” Cagel said. Engineers tend to do things that are accurate to guidelines and directives, often written apart from geographic, social, and environmental context. Roads are built for those passing through, not for those watching the migration happen. It would be as if we built football stadiums purely for the enjoyment of the players.
One of the challenges is that MassDOT suffers from being a public agency, not an advocacy organization. Though the directive and the implementation plan is effectively requiring it to do so by making sustainability integral to the organizational mission, the culture of MassDOT, as well as all of its engineering design standards, currently allow for the sole creation of infrastructure for automobiles. Even with statements from the secretary, from December 2012, ““We will build no more superhighways,” this is not what is happening on the ground. With its new focus on customer service, those customers—made up of property owners and developers looking to receive maximum return on their investment which their proformas only allow for parking lots and limited constraints, to cities and towns with outdated zoning codes that cannot contend with “true” walkable urban typologies that match our historic town and city cores, to individual citizens whose only known and accepted method of travel is to drive—increasingly demand the very superhighways that the secretary has said will no longer be built. Even the new buzz of “boulevard” is often implemented as a superhighway with a sidewalk and a few trees; Columbus Avenue in Roxbury is no Commonwealth Ave in Back Bay.
Another challenge is that GreenDOT is a directive, not yet part of the mission, and doesn’t have the legitimacy of “providing safe transportation.” A new secretary could change targets and goals, softening them to meet the demands of the majority of MassDOT customers expecting (though maybe not asking for) highways.
Reframing the role of the agency, and of transportation overall, will be critical to the success of the new agency and of the GreenDOT initiative. Can a public agency change society, or is it to carry out its wishes? I would argue strongly yes. Public agencies gave us the Interstate Highway System. They brought us the MBTA. Port authorities folded in airports as the technology of flight grew. All of these were to serve the public good, as public works. What MassDOT has going for it is that after years of being separate agencies, all transportation modes have to play in the same sandbox and learn from each other. Kagel, the coordinator at MassDOT, summed up it best “It is pretty exciting to be a multi-modal agency and really mean it. I’m realizing that nationally how different we are with our org structure, because we’ve been created after the time of highways.”
The assessment of these proposals will rest I think in the ultimate success of GreenDOT. But final assessment will rest in two areas: culture and indicators. We’ll have to see MassDOT reframed as a transportation agency and have that reframing accepted by external actors. We’ll need to see the MBTA getting financial footing. We’ll need to see bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure be integrated into every MassDOT project. We will need to see obesity, diabetes, and energy use rates lower—all the things that transportation effects.
Ultimately, we would see non-transit dependent development sustainably reduce or halt altogether and have distance to a major transit station be one of the top guiding factors in all real estate proformas.
I recently saw Boston Magazine’s annual “25 Top Places to Live,” listing places from all over the Commonwealth using metrics like schools and housing costs. As transportation options expand and automobile operating expenses rise, having the magazine feature only places where you can live car-free would be a top indicator for success; it would signify what Boston mayor Menino stated in his address at the 2011 Bike Update: “The car is no longer king.”