Eight Ways State DOT Chief Joan McDonald Can Make New York Better

“By building more and more roads, we have made it almost impossible to solve our transportation problems”

– Allen Biehler, Secretary, Pennsylvania DOT and Chair, AASHTO Standing Committee on Highways

Every state Department of Transportation (DOT) is led by a chief executive. In some states, they’re called the “secretary.” In others, the “director.” In New York, we call the state DOT chief “commissioner,” and last week, Governor Cuomo named Joan McDonald as the next Commissioner of New York State DOT.

NYSDOT staff have already demonstrated a strong inclination to support community-based transportation projects, like the redesign of State Route 376 in Poughkeepsie as a complete street. Commissioner McDonald needs to make projects like this the centerpiece of her administration. Photo: ##http://www.pps.org/##Project for Public Spaces##

Although they have been reluctant to play an active role in land use planning, state DOTs have a huge impact on how their states grow and develop. Since the dawn of the post-WWII freeway era, the vast majority of state DOTs have declined to address concerns which we now group under the banners of sustainability and livability. The result has been unsustainable growth (sprawl) and precarious dependence on a single mode (driving).  This in turn has produced extreme vulnerability to rising fuel prices, mounting emissions that have us on a course for catastrophic climate change, and alarming declines in public health.

Ironically, single-minded spending on high-speed freeways has not even accomplished transportation goals. Congestion has grown exponentially worse; more than 1,000 people lose their lives on New York’s roads each year; and the physical condition of transportation infrastructure is declining.

It is time to accept that transportation investments in livability and sustainability are essential to New York’s future, and incoming Commissioner McDonald must lead the way. DOT chiefs have enormous capability to set agendas, shift billions of dollars in transportation investments, and change agency culture. Commissioner McDonald can help New York pick itself up and get back into the race with other states leading the way on 21st Century transportation policy. In so doing, she can build on the foundation for smart transportation and land use solutions that the previous administration began to create, before getting sidetracked by financial woes.

Will McDonald follow the innovative path set by New York City’s own Janette Sadik-Khan, or will she run a state DOT content with business-as-usual planning? In the hopes that the Cuomo Administration recognizes that in tough financial times, New York needs more progressive transportation planning and investment, not less, below are a series of recommendations based on my work with state DOTs around the country.

1. Take the nationally trend-setting GreenLITES program to the next level

The NYSDOT GreenLITES program is a brilliant effort to integrate principles of livability and sustainability into transportation projects from start to finish, which has already received national recognition. Early GreenLITES initiatives have retrofit roads to prevent pollution from stormwater runoff and, in partnership with the Nature Conversancy, targeted invasive species in the Adirondacks.

GreenLITES can be powerful because it begins at the beginning, with the selection of projects. We have to start feeding smart, sustainable transportation projects into the state DOT pipeline, otherwise we’re just dressing up 20th Century solutions to make them appear like 21st Century solutions. For instance, some have called the application of complete streets and sustainability principles to the widening of Route 347 in Long Island a case of transportation greenwashing.

Expanding GreenLITES would help ensure that sustainable design is part of a project's DNA, rather than being added on top of a road widening as on Long Island's Route 347. Image:
Expanding and refining the GreenLITES program would help ensure that sustainable design is part of a project's DNA, rather than being added on top of a road widening as on Long Island's Route 347. Image: ##http://www.northshoreoflongisland.com/Articles-i-2009-02-05-78147.112114-sub_Green_Route_347_on_the_regions_horizon.html#123##Times Beacon Record.##

As one of her first steps, Joan McDonald should reconsider the wisdom of continuing to pour precious capital dollars into hugely expensive road widening projects, like the conversion of Route 17 into I-86. Think of it this way: Would you use the money you need to stop your roof from leaking to buy glitzy new kitchen appliances instead? We can no longer hope that channeling hundreds of millions into projects like the I-86 “upgrade” or the extension of Route 219 in Erie County will magically revitalize economies in various parts of New York state, while critical infrastructure crumbles in areas where most of New York’s existing population and economic wealth already reside. Instead, Commissioner McDonald should expand the GreenLITES program into agency-wide policy, practice and guidelines.

2. Enact performance-based goals and policies

Building on the GreenLITES pilot and programs such as STARS in Portland, Oregon, NYSDOT needs to evaluate its performance based on a broader range of goals than moving traffic. Success should be judged according to the agency’s effect on the environment, energy conservation, housing affordability, land use, and social equity.

3. Implement the land use and transportation program that Astrid Glynn started

Former DOT Commissioner Astrid Glynn came into power with the Spitzer administration in 2007, tasked with building a transportation and land use planning program to foster smart, compact growth. A new initiative modeled on NJDOT’s innovative Future in Transportation program seemed primed to launch with 12 full-time transportation and land use planners to implement it.  It was aborted due to funding issues, which is unfortunate, because a well-run land use planning initiative, pursued in partnership with local communities, could save NYSDOT hundreds of millions of dollars that will otherwise be spent widening roads and chasing sprawl.

4. Foster the creation of NGOs around the state to oversee implementation of transportation and land use visions

The state DOT’s internal transportation and land use program should be complemented by parallel programs outside the agency. Why? Because even when state, regional and local government agencies successfully coordinate their planning efforts, they can still have trouble implementing them. Without a third party to hold individual agencies accountable to each other and to sticking to the joint vision, communities quickly succumb to the pressures that destroy livable places. A smart plan for sustainable growth can fall apart, for instance, if one municipality starts chasing after the tax receipts generated by big box development.

These watchdog organizations would have to be entities outside of government, so that they can avoid being dominated by politics.

5. Fully engage the public in long range planning

Every state DOT formulates and adjusts a long-range plan in collaboration with the various regions throughout that state. Engaging the public so that real decision making is shared with citizens during the long range planning process will be essential to the success of transportation agencies in the 21st Century.  Due to the abstract nature of the planning process, which involves lots of ideas but few details, it has been difficult to figure out how to accomplish this. In this author’s opinion, this is a major reason why transportation agencies can no longer muster public support for tax increases to build and maintain infrastructure.

There is one superb model for the incoming Commissioner to borrow from: the 2004-05 New Hampshire DOT Long Range Business Plan.  Instead of following the conventional top-down process, then-Commissioner Carol Murray turned it upside down, enlisting the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to organize a public constituency. NHDOT provided participants with data on the state’s transportation needs and funding resources. These people then shaped the plan, relying on professional planners for direction and specific advice.  In other words, the state DOT used its expertise to support and nurture public goals, instead of dictate them.  The result: For the first time in decades, New Hampshire residents advocated for increased revenues for the DOT.

6. Trust and engage your career staff

New administrations often come into power with a mistrust of career staff, imposing change from the top down. The incoming administration should understand that there are many enlightened change agents in the state DOT bureaucracy, who if engaged, can dramatically accelerate reforms thanks to their competence and understanding of how to get things done. Having worked closely with or trained a number of NYSDOT staff over the years, I know for a fact that they already have a wealth of such committed talent.

For the new Tappan Zee Bridge to actually carry transit riders, the state DOT must do more than leave room on its bridge for buses and trains. Image:
For the new Tappan Zee Bridge to actually carry transit riders, the state DOT must do more than leave room on its bridge for buses and trains. Image: ##http://www.tzbsite.com/tzb-library/press/media-kit/boards_201006.html##Tappan Zee Bridge Website.##

7. Operate and oversee the entire system, not just the segments under the control of the state DOT

NYSDOT must evolve into a truly multi-modal agency that can influence the operations and performance of the entire transportation system, not just the portion of the state highway system that is under their jurisdiction.  For instance, it needs to make itself responsible for seeing that transit in corridors like the I-287 Tappan Zee Bridge project actually gets done, instead of simply leaving room on the bridge for someone else to build it. To meet the challenges of the 21st Century, we need to knit together the operations of the multitude of transit services as well as the street and highway capacity of state, county, local and toll jurisdictions.  To the citizens of New York, the system needs to appear seamless and legible.  I recognize that this will pose all sorts of political problems, having lived through several attempts at accomplishing this in New Jersey. Nevertheless, we can no longer be daunted by the obstacles.

8. Transform NYSDOT’s mission from “building transportation through communities” to “building communities through transportation”

All of the above strategies should be employed according to the principle that transportation is not an end to itself, but a means to support the places we inhabit. Planning transportation through the prism of place is the key to busting the silos that all transportation agencies and jurisdictions now operate within.  It is also the key to integrating transportation with land use, creating location-efficient housing, helping health departments address obesity and diabetes, and improving the quality of our watersheds and solving other ecological problems.

Place-based – or “upside down” – planning involves shifting the focus of transportation and land use planning so that it no longer simply reacts to entrenched patterns and trends, treating traffic and sprawl like irresistible forces that must be accommodated. Instead, a place-based approach involves collaboratively setting a course based on the outcomes we want to see for our communities. Then transportation planning and projects can be used to shape and support the future that we want. Organizing around place will elevate transportation to be a positive force in the growth of New York State.

Gary Toth is currently director of transportation initiatives at Project for Public Spaces. Previously, during his 34-year career with the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), Gary become one of the architects of the transformation of NJDOT to a national leader in context-sensitive transportation planning. Gary’s work has brought him into contact with the operations of many state DOTs around the country. He is one of the leading experts on what “makes DOTs tick,” and how to engage the transportation planning, funding, project development and design processes to achieve sustainable and livable outcomes.

  • Mark

    Gary, Very nicely written. Thanks.

  • garyg

    There is no serious basis for the claim that transit is “sustainable” if driving is not. As the new Pew report on transportation and greenhouse gas emissions states, transit is, at best, only modestly more energy-efficient and only modestly cleaner than driving. There is no serious prospect of achieving substantial reductions in pollution or GHG emissions through mode-switching from driving to transit. A doubling of transit’s current share of the market would reduce emissions by less than 1%. By far the biggest potential for increasing the “sustainability” of our transportation system comes from new automobile technologies — hybrids, plugin-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, biofuels, etc.

    Transit is also very vulnerable to rising fuel prices. Most transit is buses, and most buses run on diesel. Because raising transit fares is politically difficult and transit relies on public subsidies for most of its funding, rising fuel prices strain local government budgets and prompt service cuts.

    As for mode dependency, substituting dependency on transit for dependency on driving does not reduce mode dependency. An environment conducive to transit is an environment in which driving is difficult and expensive. An environment conducive to driving is an environment in which transit is inconvenient and slow.

  • Gary Toth

    I think you missed the point. The article was intended to advocate for a balanced system, not to trade cars for transit. This includes cars and transit, but as importantly, biking and walking. A balanced system is also one which includes integrating transportation and land use planning, so that each can support the other.

    We did a great job in the 20th Century of building the high speed freeway system. In the 21st Century, where fuel supply and costs will be in great question, we cannot afford to gamble our future hoping that we will pull a rabbit out of the hat, or more to the point, gasoline out of the Canadian tar sands.

    Yes transit needs fuel too, but transit also fosters compact walkable development which is far more sustainable in the 21st that spread out, petroleum based development.

  • garyg

    If your goal is just a modest shift from driving to transit and a modest increase in urban densities and compactness, then the supposed benefits would be even smaller. Again, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, it would take a doubling of transit’s share of the combined auto+transit market to reduce their combined emissions by less than 1%. According to the National Research Council, 75-90% of all new development for the next 40 years would need to be compact to reduce emissions by just 10%. So it would take huge, and highly implausible, changes in the way Americans live and get around just to produce very small environmental benefits. And yet transit and compact urbanism are constantly promoted as a “sustainable” alternative to driving and sprawl. The evidence just doesn’t support the rhetoric.

    Here’s the new Pew report: http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/Reducing_GHG_from_transportation.pdf

  • garyg

    The worse-case estimate from the parking study cited in that blog post would raise the CO2 emissions from cars by 10%. So instead of reducing emissions by less than 1%, a doubling of mass transit’s market share would reduce emissions by less than 1.1%. And instead of reducing emissions by 10% over 40 years, a radical increase in the amount of compact development would reduce emissions by 11%. I’m not sure why you think these trivial adjustments would matter to my argument. The exact values don’t matter. The point is that mode shifting and densification could not realistically yield more than very small environmental benefits.

  • Ian Turner


    I think the key statement from the Pew report is this one: “However, many transit systems with high occupancy rates and efficient designs use much less energy and have much lower GHG emissions than personal vehicles.”

    We need more NYC-subway style transit and less empty-bus-to-nowhere style transit.


  • For those who were not reading Streetsblog during our last several visits from Garyg, feel free to search the archives, but let me summarize for you:

    1. Garyg shows up with some relatively new study that he claims shows that transit (or cycling or walking) is no less harmful to the environment than cars.

    2. A whole bunch of other commenters point out that the study is either incomplete or doesn’t actually say what Garyg claims, and that he is willfully misrepresenting it.

    3. There is an argument over this, which is usually won by other longtime Streetsblog commenters. Eventually the post gets old and everyone forgets about it.

    4. A few months later, Garyg is back with another study, without any mention of previous discussions, or any acknowledgment of any points made by other commenters back then.

    I don’t think that Garyg is a classic troll who just wants to stir things up. Rather, I think his goal is to repeat this discredited argument as often as possible, in places where people may not have seen the numerous counterarguments. Maybe we can have an all-purpose Garyg rebuttal that someone can just copy and paste in every time he shows up.

    Mainly, I think this is an excellent post by Gary Toth, and I very much want to see this discussion focus on what we can do to support McDonald’s strong livable-streets leanings. I would hate to see that discussion derailed by Garyg’s latest disinformation campaign.

  • garyg

    Ian Turner,

    I’m not sure why you think that’s the key statement. It seems to me the key statements about transit in the Pew report are this:

    Currently, public transit supplies only about 1 percent of total passenger-miles in the United States and, on average, is only modestly more energy-efficient than personal vehicles.

    and this:

    Reducing energy use and emissions by shifting passenger travel from personal vehicles to public transportation will be extremely difficult in the United States

    because those statements explain just how hopeless it is to expect substantial savings in energy use and emissions through shifting from automobiles to transit.

  • Gary Toth

    I agree with Cap’n Transit. Lets not get distracted by garyg — that is probably his intent — ignore him. The real issue is helping the new leadership in NY make the right choices over the next four years. NYSDOT has all of the tools — they may have the greatest number of enlightened staffers of any DOT in the country, starting in headquarters but also in the Districts. Lets press for an environment where the new CEO does what she can to open doors and give these folks the resources… they will do the rest.

  • garyg

    My intent was to show that your proposed policies are very unlikely to achieve your goals. If I was in your position, I guess I would find that “distracting.”

  • If you actually supported any of our goals, that might be helpful. Otherwise, you’re just a concern troll.

  • Moser

    Hopefully some of NYSDOT’s progressive legions can be redeployed to the agency’s NYC office, where they seem to be rather scarce:

    …Claiming that there isn’t any official plan for what would replace the Sheridan, the DOT and their environmental consultant argued that they can’t factor in any benefits of what would replace the highway. “You just lose the Sheridan,” said Guy Lamonaca, the project engineer with DOT. “Maybe you put up a barrier, you put up a fence.”


  • JamesR

    Moser, don’t you mean the opposite, that the policies and attitudes at state DOT should be MORE like that of city DOT? FYI, NYCDOT is not a creature of state DOT, it’s a separate entity.

  • Moser is talking about the attitudes of State DOT staffers who work on State DOT projects in the City (like the Sheridan).

  • JamesR

    My bad, didn’t realize he was referring to the Region 11 NYSDOT office.

  • pjd

    Gary is on the money about the challenges facing the new Commissioner but also the still formidable talent that resides at NYSDOT. PennDOT succeeded in starting to change the conversation in a tough and change-resistent environment. It can be done in New York.

  • Hank

    People need to get to work as conveniently as practical. That is one prerequisite for economic growth in the region.

    Nearly 80% of employed Long Islanders work within Nassau or Suffolk (US Census); for those workers:
    i) Unless the place of work is within 5 miles of the place of residence, it will be highly unlikely that a bicycle will be used for the journey to work, even on a day with perfect bicycling weather. (Avid bicyclists should not imagine that their personal decisions to bike-to-work reflect the likely choices of the general population.)
    ii) Unless the place of work is within 2 miles of the place of residence, it will be unlikely that walking will be chosen for the journey to work, even on a beautiful day. (A 2-mile walk takes about 40 minutes for the average person.)
    iii) Unless the place of residence and the place of work are both within 1/2 mile (a 10-minute walk) of a one-seat transit ride, a carpool would be much preferred over a bus or train ride to work.

    More attention should be placed on encouraging commuters to carpool. Every carpool formed will reduce by at least one the number of cars used, and carpools have the potential to serve all trips regardless of length even on the worst of days.

    If walking were truly important to local community officials, they would put into action policies to ensure all sidewalks will be clear of snow within several hours of a “significant” storm. Advocates should help by organizing teams of volunteers to clear sidewalks along vacant properties or those owned by handicapped individuals.

    Smart growth must be encouraged, but its potential to reduce emissions, traffic congestion, and the number of accidents has realistic limitations, as indicated above. If advocates raise expectations for smart growth beyond what it can achieve, then ultimately it will be seen as a failed experiment and public opinion will force a course reversal that heads back to the former “only build highways” days. That would not be a desirable end.

    A balanced approach employing select highway expansion as a complement to sound strategies that will support reasonable growth in bicycling and walking would be more pragmatic and have less risk of failure than a single-focus approach. And carpooling should be encouraged strongly on Long Island.


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