Enhanced infrastructure funding and new federal priorities set the stage for DOTs to achieve deeper community impact through transportation initiatives.
By Dr. Shawn Wilson, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) and the 2021-2022 President of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
Last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was a welcome development for the transportation sector, and particularly for the communities we serve. The new legislation will allow for broad investments in a range of vital transportation programs and will offer a measure of stability to states and cities. Although inflationary pressures will lessen the effect of funding increases in the near term, my hope is this will normalize as economic conditions improve and provide substantially increased buying power for vitally necessary improved infrastructure.
In addition, there are major policy shifts poised to shape the future of transportation in this country. At a high level, we see future-focused policies that aim to improve system resiliency, usher in an age of electric vehicles and advance transportation equity factors, which are likely to create more mobility solutions. I believe the policy is smart in providing both competitive and in-formula opportunities for state and local governments so everyone can compete for funding for these new programs, particularly poorer communities.
Priorities involving equity, safety and resilience have permeated the entire federal program. Going forward DOTs will place more emphasis on answering this: What’s the utility of what we do? The IIJA guides us toward important discussions about the ways transportation can improve safety, advance equity, expand opportunities, connect communities, and achieve other critical goals.
Signs of change
When we look at the federal policy changes through that lens, they are very straightforward. No doubt, it is about pursuing transformation. In essence, it is less about fanfare and banging a drum, and more about driving meaningful progress that gradually becomes the norm.
We see signs of such transformation, particularly in the area of equity, at every level of the transportation field. Not long ago, Pete Buttigieg became the nation’s first openly gay transportation secretary, a headline-making appointment for our industry and the nation. Such appointments are becoming more commonplace. For me personally, when I became Louisiana’s transportation secretary in 2016, I was then the only African American serving in such a role in America. Yet today, we have the most diverse group of state DOT CEOs ever, in terms of gender, race and background.
Last year, I was privileged to mark another significant milestone in the industry when I was elected president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) – the first African American elected to the role in AASHTO’s 107-year history. When I attended AASHTO’s 2016 board meeting, I was the only African American at the table; that number is now six, which is another testament to the group’s progress.
Equity as pathway, not destination
When you become the AASHTO president, you are afforded the opportunity to pick one or two areas for the organization to prioritize in the coming years. In the past, the priority areas have generally involved some aspect of safety, reauthorization or workforce development, which are issues our industry has faced and will continue to face. When I thought about my priorities, though, I saw a chance to make progress in two new priority areas I believe can have a profound, long-lasting impact for our industry and the country. Specifically, I wanted to create a sustainable structure for equity others can use and adapt.
My first priority is Pathways to Equity, which focuses on diversifying our industry’s workforce across all aspects of diversity – race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, disciplines, and all other ways. This priority most certainly reflects social changes in the country over the past two years, as well the Biden Administration’s priorities. But, at the core Pathways seeks to answer: How do DOT leaders diversify thinking in their teams? And how do they transform themselves organizationally?
Diversity can make the biggest difference when it’s where the real work happens – where the rubber meets the road. So, we emphasize equity is a pathway, as opposed to a destination, which means we need to ingrain it – now – into the culture of our organizations and into everything we do.
Making partnership a priority
My second priority, which follows a similar theme, is called Partnering to Deliver. The focus of this priority is to challenge DOTs to open their doors, reach out and spend time with other people and groups, both inside and outside the industry. Such outreach offers a chance to challenge or validate our assumptions, to broaden the conversation, and hopefully partner with new people to achieve goals that are mutually important.
We know many stakeholders perceive DOTs spend their budgets on projects and programs without due consideration to what communities and neighborhoods desire. That perception is patently false, but we sometimes are guilty of talking to ourselves or to a limited universe of stakeholders. There could be more contact with neighborhood associations, and discussions with non-traditional stakeholders, such as people who universally don’t want to drive. Also, we see state DOTs that do not communicate often with their industry counterparts – the highway people and bus people live in separate worlds.
More broadly, communication and coordination among DOTs of different states needs to be strengthened. The gaps became very apparent when COVID-19 was blooming and in some areas people were being stopped at state lines – on the interstate. How do you reconcile that reality with the idea that we are all networked together? The point is partnership represents a unique opportunity in our industry because collaboration benefits everyone and it permeates everything we do.
At AASHTO, we are working to set the tone for this kind of partnership. For example, at a recent meeting of the Transportation Research Board, we gave half of the agenda to leaders from the National League of Cities, so they could share their views with CEOs and join in a dialogue. We really must work together productively. Our roads are in their cities, and their cities host our roads.
Progress speaks for itself
In Louisiana, our team has been steadily transforming the DOTD since I became Secretary in 2016. The interplay of federal and state politics is nuanced in a conservative state like ours, so we advance DOT priorities with an emphasis on progress over promises, and substance over spin. For example, when I became Secretary, we had a goal of awarding 6% of the program budget to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), which was not achieved. In 2021, we had a goal of 15.4% and we did achieve it. The result speaks for itself.
The DOTD has become more collaborative, as well, which has built momentum for key priorities. Today, you will find a DOT that has a walking path and bikeshare facility outside its front door, and a soon-to-be-built electric vehicle charging station, as well. We have programs that educate the public, putting a real focus and emphasis – unashamedly – on safety. We also are working in partnership with communities to be more responsive to their needs. One example of this is how we flexed our funding to help the City of Shreveport ensure it had funding to upgrade its transit buses to electric or hybrid power. When you put it all together – the community partnering, investing in equity, adoption of new concepts – it means that we are doing what we talk about here in Louisiana. And I am very grateful for that and for the many great opportunities I have had to serve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Shawn Wilson was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) in January 2016 after more than 10 years of executive service at DOTD. As Secretary, he manages a workforce of 4,200 professionals and a $2.7 billion budget. Since his appointment, Dr. Wilson has been a tireless advocate for new revenue, maximizing federal dollars available to Louisiana, advancing a balanced and comprehensive transportation policy for Louisiana, and ensuring the Department is more collaborative in its work at every level.
Dr. Wilson’s influence in the transportation field took a historic turn in late 2021 when he served as the 2021-2022 President of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) – the first African American to serve in that role in the organization’s 107-year history. Dr. Wilson earned a B.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Louisiana and holds a Master of Public Administration degree, as well as a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Southern University.