Smart Growth America — of which Transportation for America is a program — is pleased to announce today the hiring of Lynn Peterson, former chief executive officer of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), as senior transportation policy advisor for Smart Growth America. Learn more about Lynn’s experiences at WSDOT and what she hopes to do in her new position in a short Q&A below.
During her tenure at WSDOT, Peterson oversaw an agency responsible for 18,600 lane-miles of highway, 3,700 bridges, airports, passenger- and freight-rail programs, and the Washington State Ferry system (the nation’s largest). She brought a renewed focus on agency efficiencies, accountability and investments to the multimodal system, and supported the agency’s partnerships with cities, counties, businesses, transit agencies and non-motorized transportation groups to cost-effectively build safe and healthy communities everywhere in Washington state.
Peterson is also a nationally recognized transportation and land-use integration expert, having worked both as a transportation consultant and as a strategic planning manager for TriMet, Portland, OR’s regional transportation agency.
“Lynn is one of the country’s most innovative transportation leaders,” said Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America. “Her portfolio is a showcase of cost-effective, high-impact projects that are helping people travel safely and supporting local economies to this day. We are extremely proud to able to help bring her expertise to transportation professionals across the country.”
In her new role, Peterson will work on all of Smart Growth America’s transportation programs, including Transportation for America, SGA’s multimodal development and delivery technical assistance, and the National Complete Streets Coalition, providing invaluable insight and guidance to those programs.
Read on to hear a little bit from Lynn about what the Washington DOT did on her watch, how they tried to increase accountability and reform policies, and some thoughts on federal policy. Transcript edited lightly for clarity and brevity. – Ed.
You came to Washington DOT as the state legislature was attempting to raise new money for transportation. What did you attempt to do to increase transparency and boost confidence in the system to taxpayers and legislators alike could trust that any new money will be spent well?
There were two big barriers for the funding legislation in Washington: 1) A call for WSDOT to be more transparent, improve the quality of delivery and reduce costs, and, 2) a disagreement over the state’s role in funding transit, bike and pedestrian capital projects.
I focused WSDOT on ten very specific reforms to address the core issues that both parties were claiming needed reform, from environmental streamlining to completing audits to quality assurance to what we called “practical solutions.” We created an action plan, assigned responsibilities and then started reporting on progress every three months to the legislature.
We were able to build trust in the legislature — on both sides of the aisle — by showing support for continuous improvement in all of the areas of reform. And in the end, the $16 billion package was approved and $1 billion of it went to multimodal solutions.
In our report earlier this year examining 12 smart state transportation policies we highlighted Washington’s efforts (and Tennessee’s) to right-size projects and bring the greatest possible benefits for the lowest possible cost. How did Washington’s funding bill fiscally incentivize the DOT to save money through practical design?
Right-sizing projects is a great way to accomplish several things at once: it helps find savings that can then be invested in other needs and results in projects that are more appropriately scaled and bring nearly equivalent benefits for a much lower price tag — all of which help build taxpayer confidence in how we do business.
To help figure out how to reduce costs, the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee funded a study called the Cost Drivers of Transportation, which found that the majority of a project’s cost came from three areas: land purchase, labor and resources (building materials). Our process, known as “practical solutions”, is aimed at reducing the overall footprint of a project, therefore reducing all of those cost drivers.
We were able to save an amazing 40 percent in the projects that went through this practical solutions demonstration process. We showed that we could reduce the overall cost by more appropriately designing to the context of the situation, getting equivalent or even better outcomes for everyone in the community, regardless of what mode they’re using to travel.
There are strong financial incentives here too, as WSDOT is able to spend those savings elsewhere, allowing the state to do more with less. This process of practical solutions was written into 2015’s successful funding legislation, with any savings to be split 50/50 between preservation and new capital projects. This gives WSDOT valuable flexibility to address other needs that might pop up over the next 16 years of the bill, needs that might not be foreseen today.
Any day now, USDOT is going to propose a new rule that states and metro areas will have to use to measure congestion. How do the typical, crude roadway delay measures like the travel time index fail to capture a fuller picture of what’s actually happening, especially in metro areas? Do those measures lead us to good solutions when we’re talking about maximizing benefits for minimal costs?
A delay measure is good for analyzing a segment of roadway or intersection to get an idea of what a very specific type of user experiences at a certain time of day on a certain type of trip.
But just one narrow measure like delay can never fully capture the complexity of the transportation system nor the complexity of the values in the community and state that need to be identified, acknowledged, measured and weighed to get to an appropriate set of solutions for an identified problem spot.
As I was taught in planning school, we have to learn to make decisions in the midst of multiple vague and competing goals. And we can’t do that without the most accurate information — not just a limited slice of data.
USDOT is on the right track with a shift to performance based transportation decision-making, but it’s important that any congestion measure provide a picture of all modes and trip types and land uses to ensure that the resulting projects are the right size and will be lasting solutions for decades to come.
After being steeped in the real-world needs of the traveling public and local leaders for the last few years, were there some emerging issues for states and cities that were perhaps surprisingly ignored in the FAST Act?
A huge issue that is still on the table is how to fund transportation so that we can manage it more as a utility. What I mean by transportation as a utility is a shift to a system of funding where we pay based on how and how much we use the system, tying the maintenance and preservation of our valuable assets to that rate.
There are states out there already starting to think like this, and I would like to have seen more support for those forward-looking states, and ways to further stoke that conversation at the federal level.
The Seattle region is a powerful case study of the larger national trend of companies looking to relocate into downtown cores or other walkable, transit-connected places to attract talent and stay competitive. What can states do to help or hamper those efforts?
While state DOTs are tasked with the maintenance, preservation and safety of certain assets within the broader system, they can’t manage those assets at the expense of the goals of those local communities, cities and regions. State DOTs need to be true partners at the regional table, and they need to incorporate their values into the state’s plans.
In Washington, our practical solutions process helped a true partnership grow between WSDOT leaders and regional leaders.
For example, by talking with local transit agencies rather than making assumptions, we learned how to move the most people and maximize the person-throughput in a corridor instead of just increasing the intersection level-of-service (LOS). By doing that, we could help save the transit agency from expensive delays that might otherwise be imposed on them due to state DOT design guidelines.