CRISIS AND OPPORTUNITY AT MASSDOT: Money, Internal Operations, and Political Support for Change

Because government is the arena where so many of society’s conflicting interests fight for influence, and because nearly every decision and action can end up in court, the public sector is more rule-bound than most organizations.  The biggest political sin for administrators is making a visible mistake.  So public agencies typically evolve very incrementally, and if something isn’t noticeably broken there is seldom any political advantage in fixing it – or even in improving its internal operations.  Which is what gives extra credence to the cliché that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity.”

Fortunately, and unfortunately, Massachusetts’ Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is in the middle of an accelerating crisis.  The most visible aspect is the MBTA’s growing revenue shortfall, a “fiscal cliff” that the state managed to avoid last year by using up most of the one-time fixes.   But it’s not just the MBTA budget that’s falling apart.  The fiscal health of the entire road system is dependent on a diminishing, inflation-unadjusted gas tax.  As both transportation needs and maintenance costs increase, the state has been forced to pay for an increasing amount of operational expenses – planning, maintenance, and even administrative work – using bond-financed capital funds.  It’s a time-bomb – taxpayers will end up paying for both the project and the interest for decades to come, making future revenues unavailable for future projects and putting the transportation system even deeper into the pothole.


Money problems create headlines, but MassDOT’s problems go deeper.  To successfully cope with the emerging challenges of rising construction costs, uncertain fuel availability and prices, escalating environmental/climate problems, higher customer expectations, and budgetary constraints, MassDOT needs fundamental strategic, organizational, and cultural change.  It needs to be quicker, more efficient, and very creative.  Top leadership recognizes this and the agency has already come a long way – former Transportation Secretary Jeff Mullen did a Fortune-100-worthy job of creating a unified organization out of the previously separate (and often antagonistic) state agencies dealing with different transportation issues: the Highway Department, Mass Pike, RMV, Tobin Bridge, and Aeronautics, and to the MBTA.

However, too many of MassDOT’s departments and districts are still run like separate silos, with much too little interaction between (for example) the strategic planning and highway construction functions.  The chains of command are extremely long, with up to eight or more layers between the front line and the Secretary. And the hierarchy is stifling — communication between peers in different departments has to be passed up several levels before it can cross divisional lines and then get passed down again to the appropriate person.  As Secretaries come and go along with their pet projects MassDOTs mid-level managers and staff have learned that keeping your head down, not rocking the boat, is the best way to survive.

To its credit, the Patrick Administration has tried to address the various problems.  The 2009 Transportation Reform act that created a consolidated MassDOT was a huge step.  The Governor also proposed exploring switching from the gas tax to a “miles traveled” road tax, but backed off when a Tea Party- nervous Legislature ran away.  And the agency’s top leaders have not been afraid to try turning the huge ship: when the current Transportation Secretary, Rich Davey, took over he distributed buttons saying “We’ve always done it this way” with a big slash crossing it out.


The good news is that MassDOT has several game-changing opportunities.  Prompted by the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act and the Healthy Transportation Compact in the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, MassDOT has developed the GreenDOT policy – which, if it is fully implemented, will be one of the most aggressive efforts in any state to make a public agency’s internal operations and external programs environmentally sustainable and economically efficient.  GreenDOT covers seven areas: air quality, energy consumption, material procurement, land management, transportation planning and design, waste management, and water resources. Central to the policy is promoting the “healthy transportation options” of walking, bicycling, and public transit, and supporting smart growth development such as Transportation Oriented Development. GreenDOT, along with the newly announced Mode Shift Goals to triple the percentage of miles traveled by walking, cycling, and transit by 2030, provides both the strategic direction and measureable targets for the future.

But will there be money and organizational capacity to make these fundamental changes in our transportation system?  Again, MassDOT has some important opportunities.  Even though the new federal Transportation Funding Authorization, called MAP-21, cuts the total amount of federal aid available for transportation, Massachusetts has a long history of “flexing” federal highway money for transit and other non-highway purposes – something that MAP-21 makes even easier to do.  If it wants, MassDOT can use this flexibility to prioritize the train, transit, bicycling, and walking facilities that reaching the GreenDOT goals will require.

Creating the organizational structure and energy to follow-through on its new vision will be more problematic.  Like most public agencies, MassDOT is full of well-meaning and hard-working people.  But hierarchal constraints and car-centric cultural traditions are hard to overcome.  Officially, MassDOT has changed from a highway (or Turnpike) agency into a fully multi-modal transportation department.  However, the on-the-ground reality is that most funding decisions by the regional MPOs and the road designs actually used for most road projects still give precedence to the needs of car traffic.

Things are much better than in past years: pedestrian, bicycles, and transit needs are no longer ignored. But they are not prioritized.  Opportunities to maximize non-motorized travel, to make cycling and walking as inviting as possible, are repeatedly missed.  And the connection to transit is often arms-length rather than integral.  One reason may be that while each of MassDOT’s six districts, where most road projects are designed and managed, has a designated Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator, none of them are fully empowered or trained to act as champions for implementing state-of-the-art designs for these non-motorized modes.  And it’s not clear how many of them would even want to risk their careers by pushing back against their peers or immediate supervisors.  Without District-level, field-based champions – in this as well as other policy areas – the leaderships’ new directions will not take hold in day-to-day operational reality.


On the other hand, last year’s Metro-area public forums about the MBTA budget crises catalyzed a huge outpouring of vocal and aroused people – voters! – who were furious at the proposed service cuts and demanded state action to preserve this economically vital service.  The forums created enough political pressure to postpone some of the worst cutbacks and boost management’s efforts to improve internal operations. (The one-year bail-out the state used to buy time for the T also threw a little money to the even worse-off Regional Transportation Authorities (RTAs) that service the rest of the state.)

This year, MassDOT is hosting 15 “public conversations”  around the state to solicit ideas about “the future of transportation” in the Commonwealth.  Although the absence of an immediate catastrophe like the proposed MBTA service cuts means turn-out will remain moderate, if these events generate enough public – and media – interest they might provide the political pressure for internal reforms.  If we are really lucky, the public conversations might even provide a starting point for finding a solution to the long-term transportation system funding crisis as well.

Let’s hope that the current Secretary has a longer tenure than his predecessors; change at the top makes everyone below every cautious.  But even if Davey stays, GreenDOT will only be effectively implemented if he creates a cross-departmental GreenDOT team that reports directly to him and that has the authority to interact directly with every person at every level of the entire agency – and people outside as well.  Field-level change agents need to not only be protected but recognized and rewarded.  The wonderful-for-its-time Highway Design Guide (the unofficial “bible” for road planning in this state) needs to be updated to prioritize rather than just allow the new strategies.  The easy part is to ensure that all decisions about future projects are based on how much the work will move us towards our new goals.  Harder is recognizing that because highway project designs sit around for decades waiting for funding, every project not yet in construction needs to be re-examined and re-designed to reflect the new goals – and organizational culture will change more rapidly around specific work than because of top-down urging.

MassDOT has made enormous policy and project-oriented oriented changes over the past several years and everyone, from the Governor’s office to the agency staff desires enormous credit for what has been accomplished.  But there is a long way yet to go.  We all want MassDOT to succeed.  And we all know that the hardest work has to be done by those who work there.


Related previous posts:

TRANSPORTATION FINANCES: Why Saving Public Transportation Requires Helping Car Drivers

LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

SETTING GOOD GOALS: From Effort To Results

COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use


DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

LIVABLE STREETS – From Theory to Practice


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