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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 70 · No. 6 > A Call To Action|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-07-004
A Call To Action
by David G. Burwell
The citizens of New Hampshire write a long-range transportation plan to address congestion, land use, and related issues.
It was the spring of 2004, and New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) Commissioner Carol Murray had a problem. Traffic was overwhelming the main streets and highways throughout her home State, threatening the small-town character that defines the quality of life in New Hampshire. Yet traffic was also the State's lifeblood, bringing tourists to its lakes and mountains and through its postcard-perfect village centers. "Transportation is the game board that everything else is played upon," says Murray, "but we were losing the game."
New Hampshire Community Foundation President Lew Feldstein had troubles of his own. For decades New Hampshire had been one of the fastest growing States in the Nation, causing the Community Foundation to identify growth management as central to its mission of strengthening a sense of community.
Feldstein had been a leader on several statewide growth commissions and was among the prime movers in a successful 5-year effort to double the State's inventory of protected open space to more than 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) publicly acquired or put under private conservation easement. Yet it was not enough. "I realized," he says, "that for the time and money spent protecting 1 acre [0.4 hectare], we were leaving 1,000 acres [405 hectares] open for unplanned development." What the State needed was a more comprehensive approach.
Murray had an idea to propose to Feldstein. It was time to update the State's long-range transportation plan. A strong believer in customer service as a key performance metric for her agency, she needed a new way to engage her customers in the plan. "I also knew that if we didn't connect transportation to land use, both would fail miserably," she says. Feldstein's Community Foundation was both a protector of community values and a statewide leader in land use planning. "I picked up the phone and asked him to chair a citizen panel to write the plan," she says.
"It was a shot out of the blue," says Feldstein. "It was not that transportation wasn't significant. It was, and is, at the core of growth and development. However, transportation decisions were made [independently from] the citizen-based processes that addressed growth and land use. Nor was transportation represented on any of the major commissions appointed by three different governors to look at statewide growth."
He had questions for Murray. Could the Community Foundation have an impact? Did it have the capacity to contribute, or would it be "window-dressing"? Feldstein went online and looked at 10 other State department of transportation long-range plans. "They were sleep inducing, full of jargon and acronyms," he says. "Most of them simply listed competing transportation objectives and declared that the plan would meet every one. Few included any tough decisions." He told Murray, "No."
Murray persisted. Feldstein pushed back: Will the Community Foundation's role be substantive? Will we be equal decisionmakers in the selection of citizen members? Will the panel include critics of NHDOT? Will the Community Foundation be provided independent consultant support separate from NHDOT's consultants? Will Murray and her leadership team be accessible? Will the plan be implemented by NHDOT? "Yes" was the answer on all accounts. After months of negotiations, including a direct meeting between Murray and the Community Foundation's board of directors, an agreement was reached. Murray and the Community Foundation mutually agreed on and impaneled a 24-member Community Advisory Committee (CAC).
Square-Dancing In a Broom Closet
As director of planning at NHDOT, it was Ansel Sanborn's job to explain the process to the members of the newly minted CAC, many of whom knew next to nothing about transportation planning, what a long-range plan is, how it is developed, and what it is supposed to do. Sanborn was mystified. The question was how to communicate the planning process, its connection to project development, and funding issues to people from such organizations as Easter Seals, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Foundation for Healthy Communities, and the New Hampshire Municipal Association. Equally vexing, how to do this without boring the transportation industry members on the panel: the truckers association, rail and bus organizations, and the Safe Roads New Hampshire Initiative group? "For the first 3 months, nobody had any idea what we were talking about," says Sanborn.
Sanborn had an even bigger problem. "In previous long-range plans, when the plans were done, we shelved them," he admits. This plan had to be different. Not only were new customers involved, commitments had been made that this plan would be implemented. In particular, the charge that Murray gave the committee included the assignment to "establish strategic direction for future investment in, and management of, State transportation assets over the next 20 years."
CAC members included representatives of the Executive Council of the State of New Hampshire and both the State House and Senate transportation committees, groups that considered transportation policy and funding their exclusive domain. How to empower the CAC without offending the politicians?
Initially, Sanborn played it safe, sticking with presentations that explained planning cycles and project development processes without infringing on legislative prerogatives. They fell flat. Then he had an idea. "I realized," he says, "that to get people interested in transportation, you had to talk to them about something they were interested in."
He prepared a white paper that focused, not on system condition and level of service, but on social, economic, and environmental issues facing the State. The paper outlined some clear social problems such as the fact that 25 percent of the State's population does not have a driver's license. New Hampshire's population was also the fastest growing in New England, and the segment of population over 65 is growing. "What's going to happen when you can't drive anymore?" Sanborn asks. "That was an interesting question to them." NHDOT set up offline training sessions to educate CAC members unfamiliar with the transportation planning process and focused committee meetings on what the CAC wanted to talk about.
It worked. "Who cares about pavement?" asks Easter Seals President Chris McMahon. "People care about access. My people's basic needs are food, health care, and getting to a job. Survival access is the issue. Are people getting connected to the services they need to survive?"
The vetting of member concerns also helped the group to coalesce. "We got beyond the stereotypes of viewing members simply as representatives of a particular organization," says Municipal Association representative Maura Carroll, "to understand real transportation issues and needs of a variety of individuals and groups. The education process was tremendous."
And confusing. "The challenge of writing a citizen plan," says CAC member Cliff Sinnott, executive director of the Rockingham Regional Planning Commission, "is that, when you start talking to citizens about transportation, you can't contain the conversation."
Jim Jalbert, president of C&J Trailways®, an intercity bus company, has a more direct description of committee meetings: "It was like square-dancing in a broom closet. We kept bumping into each other's issues."
A Transportation Plan for the State
As NHDOT staff and consultants supplied information and case studies from other States on issues raised at committee meetings, the citizen team reached consensus on a fundamental finding: the need for a comprehensive vision for statewide growth and development.
"It became obvious to all of us," says Kathy Hersh, director of community development for the city of Nashua, "that transportation is not the goal. Transportation is a tool to get to the goal."
Equally obvious was that the tools needed to manage transportation were not all in NHDOT's toolbox. Committee member Bill Norton, a commercial real estate investor, concluded, "We have reached the end of our rope in trying to pave our way out of our transportation problems. We need to pay attention to how we can affect the demand side of the equation. That includes land use."
The committee findings reflected this view in the final plan. "Unless local land use decisions are better coordinated with transportation decisions, the amount of traffic on the State system will continue to accelerate," the plan concludes.
With freight traffic growing at about 3.5 percent annually, the committee also found that "we need to address freight from both the supply and the demand side." However, NHDOT's traditional role as a builder and manager of transportation infrastructure is ill-suited to this demand-side function. "Nobody's in charge of reducing the State's need to lay more pavement," says the Easter Seals' McMahon. "Somebody's going to have to be in charge of doing something about this."
Sanborn agrees. "The committee's product is not NHDOT's transportation plan," he says. "It is a transportation plan for the State of New Hampshire. Our job is to implement the plan where we can and to develop partnerships to advance the plan's goals when we can't."
Recognizing the importance of partnerships, the plan directs NHDOT to undertake three innovative initiatives. At the local level, it says, "design transportation solutions in traditional municipal centers and downtowns to fit the context of the community." At the regional level, it directs the agency to "build regional planning commission capacity to integrate transportation and land use planning," and to "develop multimodal corridor plans to better understand and coordinate transportation and land use." At the statewide level, it directs the agency to "develop a truly comprehensive statewide transportation plan that serves a broader vision for the State and to include other State agencies with resources to contribute in the development of the plan."
McMahon describes the partnership challenge in operational terms. She envisions partnerships to promote "vertical and horizontal integration," with agencies at the municipal level pooling resources to address common transportation problems (the horizontal axis) and then developing regional and statewide interagency partnerships to fill the gaps in their capabilities (the vertical level). "Start locally and roll it up," McMahon says.
The 900-Pound Gorilla
Under the leadership of Lew Feldstein, who was determined to produce a plan that set specific goals and policies to which NHDOT could be held accountable, the CAC focused its recommendations on 15 specific actions under the direct control of NHDOT. In addition to the partnership initiatives mentioned above, some of the more creative recommendations include the following:
Acknowledging the limited resources available, the CAC focused on recommendations that do not require a lot of new money. Says the Municipal Association's Carroll, "We find other ways to do things. Local governments can partner with the State to leverage private sector support."
About 28 percent of the State road system is under State ownership. The CAC concluded, "We need to address transportation as a system," not just the State road system but all roads and all modes, including services not under the control of NHDOT. This comprehensive approach requires attention to customer needs at all levels, including people who do not drive. "We count how many trucks and cars move because that is the only number we know how to count," says the Easter Seals' McMahon. "We can do better."
The CAC did not reach consensus on the key issue of funding. Although a majority of the committee agreed that New Hampshire needs more resources, a minority voiced the view that "we should learn to live within our means." With no income tax, no sales tax, and a State gas tax (19.6 cents) that ranks 26th highest among all States in total gas tax burden, those means are limited. Furthermore, gas tax revenues are constitutionally restricted to public highway use, not rail or transit. "Transportation funding is one of three 900-pound gorillas in the room," warned real estate investor Norton, "along with health care and education. We should deal with it."
The CAC also did not agree on the related issue of how to raise the new revenues that the majority of the committee members believe are needed. "Any discussion of transportation finance raises complicated economic, technical, and legal issues," the committee wrote in the plan. "Delving into these issues was not in our charge."
The CAC believed that financing is a fundamentally political issue because it involves the question of who benefits from, and who pays for, transportation services, an issue that was not in the CAC's area of expertise.
Significantly, the CAC voted to include minority views in the plan itself. This decision allowed dissenting opinions to be respected and publicly acknowledged, but also made consensus on the final report possible. "A commitment to respectful communication," says the Municipal Association's Carroll, "was key to our success."
Holding Everybody Accountable
After drafting its findings and recommendations, the CAC decided to do something bold. Rather than simply recruiting stakeholders to attend an NHDOT-sponsored hearing on the draft plan, the committee members decided to host hearings themselves, with NHDOT and its consultants listening, rather than presenting the plan. Transportation Commissioner Murray attended all nine meetings, which attracted more than 400 participants. "I heard a lot of concerns about transportation, from issues about health and obesity to finance to transit needs to land use," she says. "Listening is an important element of transportation planning. We as transportation practitioners need to do more of it."
The response from the public was positive — but skeptical. "Citizens asked two main questions," says Murray, "why am I here?" And "why do I care?"
NHDOT's Sanborn adds a third most-asked question: "Is anything going to happen? Get back to us when you can show us that something has changed."
Murray adds, "It was an empowering process for all of us. For the first time, it enabled us to expand the conversation beyond transportation and discuss larger issues, such as health care, the importance of village centers, safe routes to school, and quality of life."
Regional planner Sinnott adds, "It turns out that the citizen long-range plan is not so much a problem- solving process as a problem exploration process. The conversation needs to continue."
When the CAC submitted its final report to Murray on June 9, 2006, she promised to present the agency response by the end of the year in a form that CAC members could take to the public, identifying who was accountable for making change happen. "We liked that," says the Easter Seals' McMahon, "We need a throat to choke."
A Call to Action
In December 2006 Murray, her staff, and the plan consultants met at the Community Foundation's conference room to present the agency's response to the plan. The news was mixed. Yes, the system is broken — especially the 10-year funding plan, which is really an 18- to 20-year plan and contains projects that exist only as placeholders. "But," Murray said to the CAC, "I need your help. This is a call to action."
In fact, the 10-year plan is developed by the regional commissions, with public input, and approved by the Executive Council and the legislature. The regional commissions, Executive Council, and the legislature all have representatives who serve on the CAC.
"We have to either raise the bridge (raise more money) or lower the water (reduce the number and cost of projects)," says Michael King, director of the North Country Council, a regional planning commission. "We are all part of the problem, and we all need to contribute to the solution."
NHDOT was good to its word. "We hear you," said NHDOT's Sanborn, who presented the following specific agency commitments to implement the citizen plan:
First, NHDOT agreed to advocate for change in the statewide planning process to address both transportation and its broad societal impacts. NHDOT also agreed to engage other State agencies in transportation plan development and to include the CAC plan as the transportation section in the State Development Plan, an effort being led by the Governor's Office of Energy and Planning.
Second, NHDOT agreed to provide new planning and technical assistance to municipalities and regional commissions on the transportation elements of their plans. It also will provide training to agency staff, regional commissions, and municipalities on how transportation projects can promote a sense of place and improve community cohesion — and NHDOT will integrate these values into the project development process. This assistance will promote system "wellness" by addressing smaller problems quickly rather than waiting until they become big problems, will include demand side as well as supply side solutions, and will advance transportation and land use partnerships of particular interest to the CAC.
Third, NHDOT will work to reform the 10-year plan to adopt the CAC's preferred investment strategy. This strategy includes dividing projects into components, funding only what can be implemented during the 2-year planning and programming cycle, and measuring priorities against societal goals. NHDOT will require project sponsors to frame the specific problem addressed and explain why the funding requested is the most efficient response to the problem.
Fourth, NHDOT will adopt a statewide planning framework for corridor management that (1) addresses interregional and intraregional travel needs; (2) is multimodal, including strategies that use State highways to accommodate transit services such buses, vanpools, and other public transportation services; (3) adopts a "fix-it-first" approach to the transportation system; and (4) supports statewide ridesharing programs by partnering with municipal and regional transportation management associations.
Fifth, NHDOT will make public involvement a fundamental aspect of all transportation planning, including training staff in communication and listening skills, and providing all partners with access to common data on transportation trends, impacts, alternatives, processes, and financing.
Will it work? Time will tell. Certainly, Murray has raised expectations by supporting this call to action and by laying down markers for NHDOT accountability.
"This plan gets NHDOT involved in community planning," says regional planner Sinnott. "I hope NHDOT has the resolve to stick with it."
Feldstein has a similar wait-and-see attitude. "For the first time, New Hampshire has a transportation plan that speaks to community-wide transportation needs, not just those served by NHDOT. But implementation is not automatic. We are at the very beginning of moving to a customer-driven process."
One thing is certain: The customers now have a clear plan of action and an agency willing to take responsibility for its piece of plan implementation. But this will happen only through partnerships, involving mutual commitments between State legislative and executive leaders, other State agencies, regional and metropolitan planning organizations, municipalities, citizens, and the private sector. In this sense, everybody has a continuing role to play in the success of this pioneering effort in citizen-led transportation planning.
David G. Burwell is a transportation consultant for the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit firm in New York City that provided consulting support to the Citizen Advisory Committee. Burwell is cofounder and former CEO of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a former CEO of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. He has degrees in government from Dartmouth College and law from the University of Virginia.
The full text of the New Hampshire Citizen Long-Range Transportation Plan and the NHDOT response to the plan are available online at www.nhtranplan.com. For more information, contact David Burwell at 301-767-0871 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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