Talking Michigan Transportation

Shovel worthy transportation projects, acknowledging past mistakes and why so many crash deaths

November 23, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 82
Talking Michigan Transportation
Shovel worthy transportation projects, acknowledging past mistakes and why so many crash deaths
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with a regular guest, Lloyd Brown. Now working for the consulting firm, HDR, Brown was previously the communications director at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Recalling his time working for the Washington (state) Department of Transportation and then AASHTO, Brown talks about the opportunities and challenges created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed by President Biden in Michigan last week.

Brown also talks about discussions by U.S Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to incentivize rethinking some urban freeways, which when built, displaced and cut off certain residents. More transportation officials are acknowledging past mistakes made in building infrastructure that isolated communities and are pursuing plans to improve on the past, including MDOT with I-375 in Detroit.

On Tuesday, The New York Times The Daily podcast featured a conversation about similar issues with Clairborne Avenue and the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.

Also reprised: the rising number of vehicle crashes, especially crashes resulting in serious injuries and deaths as detailed on the Nov. 10 podcast.

And a Thanksgiving acknowledgement to the staff that takes on extra duties helping to produce and post the podcast each week.


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: This week, I am pleased to have what has become a regular guest, old friend of the podcast, Lloyd Brown, formerly the communications director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and now a consultant with HDR living in beautiful Arizona. Lloyd let's just talk about all kinds of things including the IIJA infrastructure act and other things that are going on in transportation since it's a holiday week and things are kind of slowing down. Does that sound good to you?

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Cranson: Sure. So, talk first about, you know, what you've been seeing, hearing, reading about the infrastructure plan—the President signed it in Michigan last week, as you know—and implementation and, you know, what the challenges and opportunities are.

Brown: Well, first, a big significance is increases in investment levels and also the commitment of multi years for the federal bill. Those two things go a long way toward helping state DOTs and other transportation agencies put plans together and anticipate what they can move into the pipeline. And for the industry surrounding the transportation departments that do a lot of the engineering, do a lot of construction, that's all really good news. So, there's certainly a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving week. And also, you know, whenever there's good there's also some challenges. And I think that part of what happens when you go from the big announcement and the celebration that a bill was passed is that you turn the page and then you have to move into implementation. And there certainly are some potential challenges looking at implementation and managing public expectation for what that implementation is going to look like.

Cranson: So, talk more specifically, I guess, about what that means. I mean, you were at a DOT and probably transitioning to your job in Washington with AASHTO when the American Recovery and Rescue, ARA, was enacted under the Obama administration. And, you know, there was a lot of talk then about projects that are shovel ready and that became, I guess, a bit of a stumbling block of frustration I think for a lot of people in construction and various kinds of vertical and horizontal construction across the country. The term of ARA now seems to be shovel worthy, which makes a lot more sense to me. What can you say about all that?

Brown: Well, in the late 2000s, 2009, there was a huge push to get money into the economy and to create jobs. So, the issue was getting people to work much more than what exactly we were doing with the infrastructure. So, you saw a lot of projects move forward that was those that were focused a lot on maintenance and some of the standard program and project that maybe got moved ahead and that might have been done the following year or the year after that, but that got moved up because it was already within the right-of-way, didn't have to deal with environmental permitting, and it could easily move into a contracting situation and keep people working, that was the main focus. In this kind of situation, I think what you're going to see is that there is a natural lag time between when the money, you know, from the federal government comes into the programs, and, you know, state DOTs and other transportation organizations they have a process for engineering projects, getting them through permitting, getting them through a contracting process, getting a contractor out into the field to do the work. It's not just a quick couple of week process in many cases. It can take some time and sometimes months. And that, I think, is one of the things where transportation organizations and agencies around the country are going to have to do some concerted effort to manage public expectations for, “Hey, there's all this federal money now available. Why isn't this fixed?” or “Why aren't these things changing more quickly?”

Cranson: Well, that's, you know, the whole process of hopefully every state has a longer-term plan, whether it's five years or ten years. And, you know, they've always got these things in place that they already know that they need to do. And when something like this comes along, they've got a plan to work from just to pull some things forward. I mean, isn't that how things should work?

Brown: I think so, and I think you'll see that for sure. There still are going to be processes in terms of figuring out which ones of those projects are eligible to be pulled forward, which ones have permitting that still needs to take place, and reviews that still need to happen. So, yeah, there is going to be probably a pretty traditional program with some additional projects moved into that program. It'll be different than what it was with ARA when there was a huge push just to get money going and get projects out into the field as quickly as possible. I think this is going to be a much more thoughtful process. And the other part of this is there's quite a bit of money, and I don't know the exact number, but there's quite a bit of money too that's been dedicated to granting programs. And there’s a whole process involved in that as well and just simply in developing the applications for the grants and which projects are eligible for grants, writing applications, processing them. So, again, it could take a little while for some of this money to reach out into the local levels.

Cranson: So, how do you balance—put yourself in USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg's seat, or the President's seat for that matter, and everything else that we know about bringing together, you know, various constituencies and, you know, the whole thing of trying to find these alliances. It's hard enough to get the votes to get support for these things, but within that you know that most people are thinking about fixing roads. They're thinking about payment and making my commute smoother and hopefully shorter. And meanwhile, they both are multi-modal advocates, Secretary Pete especially and, you know, the President for that matter being a huge Amtrak rider and fan. And there's money in there for Amtrak and passenger rail and certainly for transit. And some of the highway money and some of the things they're talking about don't add capacity or fix roads at all. They would actually take some out to try to, you know, make up for some inequities, social justice inequities, in communities and where freeways were built. So, knowing what you just said that people want to see, you know, ribbons being cut and shovels going in the ground and seeing roads, and yet there are huge constituencies, especially within the Democratic party that want these multimodal uses. How would you balance all that?

Brown: I think that is definitely something that a lot of organizations and transportation departments around the country are trying to juggle. Obviously, the urban environment, the urban transportation organizations, are going to be more adept and maybe more focused on those kinds of projects that can better accommodate pedestrian and cycling uses. The state DOTs that are that have been focused, I think, are probably going to have a sense for where they can make some investments. And then some of the other DOTs are simply going to need to catch up and figure out if this is money that they want to go for or if there are other priorities for the organization. But there certainly is going to continue to be an emphasis and a focus on active transportation. It's been a priority, I know, for AASHTO for many years. And the popularity of active transportation investments is only increasing, especially as we look at the growth of alternative fuel vehicles and automated vehicles and how do the active transportation exist in that mixed use environment. There are a lot of issues in it, but ultimately people, I think, are turning more toward cycling and walkable communities and places, or opportunities, of investment that are making communities more livable.

Cranson: So, I didn't think you would leave AASHTO before taking the H out of the name.

Brown: [Laughter] Well, it's a process and, you know, AASHTO was founded in 1914, so you're talking about an organization that's 107 years old. Change happens but it's an evolution. It's a process. So, I would expect that the ongoing discussion—and you're talking about the reference to highways in the Transportation Officials name there, and certainly, highways remain a core part of the overall federal investment. And I don't think that changes regardless of who's president or what administration is in. Highways will continue to be there because we still need to move goods, and we still need to move services. And they’re still an efficient way of moving a lot of people. So, the question ultimately becomes how do we make communities more livable, and how do we do it in a way that is not contributing to some of the negative effects of climate change? So, you know, you're going to see alternative fuels. You're going to see more automated vehicles and safety becoming more and more of a focus and a priority.

Cranson: Well, Secretary Buttigieg has definitely indicated that, you know, he wants safety to be a priority and in the context of what you're talking about with cycling and pedestrians. I mentioned what they would do to fund, you know, some projects, some ideas to actually try to make amends for decisions made years ago. And, you know, in fairness to the people making those decisions, we know things now that we didn't then. But a lot of this is about racial equity, and, you know, in Detroit we're talking about I-375 which basically took out two thriving Black communities in the 60s. And on The Daily, The New York Times The Daily podcast they had an interview about the Clairborne highway in New Orleans. And I recommend listening to it if you haven't because it very much fits with what's going on in Detroit and, you know, many other cities like Atlanta, L.A., obviously, where freeways were built and displaced people. And, you know, I think the important thing to remember is yeah, we can't, you know, make up for what we've done, but just acknowledging that that was a mistake and that was a poor way to go, and that in itself is important. Do you agree?

Brown: I think that acknowledging is certainly one of the one of the things that will be important. There are—recognizing that whenever investments are made that there are groups that benefit and groups that don't benefit. And how those investments of 50 years are continuing—50 years ago, 60 years ago, 70 years ago—to add value to certain communities and remove value from other communities, that's a very important concept. And what I know for certain is that nearly every conversation that is made around public engagement comes with an increased focus and attention to equity, and not just equality and not just fairness but equity and what that means in all its various shapes and sizes. So, departments of transportation at the city, county, state level and governments of all types, transit organizations, are developing their concepts and frameworks for what that means to them, and equity in the context of their communities. And it may mean different things in different communities, but ultimately what it comes down to is changing the way in which transportation projects and solutions are considered even from the start so that the conversation is an ongoing continuous process with all the potentially affected parties, and how you make investments that are beneficial to communities that maybe were overlooked and somehow penalized over the last five or six decades.

Cranson: Yeah, and I think, going to your point, if you do redo these things and rethink them and, you know, convert highways that maybe depressed and divided a community into urban boulevards that have cycling and pedestrian access and, you know, create connections and you're not just doing it for whatever that project is, you're kind of sending a message, and reshaping the conversation for the young planners and engineers coming into the departments and how they're going to view projects going forward. So, it can't be anything but good.

Brown: Yeah, I think that's right. I think that acknowledging it and embedding it into your culture and putting it into your strategic vision for how your organization is going to interact with this community, all of that's important. And I think it's those are steps in the right direction.

Cranson: Stick around. There's more to come right after this short message.


Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to

Cranson: So, let's talk about safety for a minute. I spoke recently with a couple of advocates at the national and state level about the ongoing rise in crashes, especially severe crashes and crash deaths. Early in the pandemic there was, you know, hardly any traffic on the road. It was down as much as 60 percent in Michigan, yet crash deaths continue to go up because we know people were speeding and not wearing their seat belts. Even though, you know, there's a lot of people back on the road in 2021, the numbers are still going in the wrong direction. What do you think about that?

Brown: Well, I'm concerned that speed and inattention continue to be problems that we just can't seem to get a handle on. And it's not really even an issue of enforcement because the law enforcement's out on the highways all around the country. So, people seemingly have decided that—maybe it's because they feel safer with their airbags, or their driver assist systems, that are in the new cars, or navigation systems, but whatever is going on behind the wheel of the vehicle, the decision to drive too fast for conditions, for the situation and drive in attentively, maybe play with a car stereo or eat french fries, whatever it is.

Cranson: So, yeah, that's been a concern of mine for quite some time that we've, you know, created these great technologies to keep us safer, yet, you know, we also find more ways to crash and hurt ourselves. So, it just seems like it's a never-ending cycle. And I think until we do get to fully automated vehicles when we accept the fact that the computer is a better driver than we are, as good as we might think we are, you know, without emotions, without road rage, without all the things that, you know, create human behavior and human error that I don't know how we get a handle on this.

Brown: Well, yeah, and I wish I had some kind of solution as well. And I think you're right that the cost in terms of the loss of life, of course, is tragic but in addition, the societal costs and the disruption of families and the disruption in terms of, you know, this just is the way we go about living our lives. We seem to think that it's always going to happen to someone else, and the fact is that it happens randomly. And it recently happened in my family. I was in a pretty serious car crash through no fault of my own. Somebody lost control their vehicle, wasn't paying attention. And I was driving on a sunny day, on a straight freeway, was hit, and our car was totaled. And, fortunately, my wife and I walked away safely but not without injury and, you know, ongoing issues. So, you know, it's crazy how this stuff still is happening even though we know what the answers are, and that's to slow down, pay attention, and take driving seriously as a responsibility and not a God-given right to go as fast as you can and hope everyone else gets out of your way.

Cranson: You think it's, and I’m glad you guys were okay, do you think that the federal government doing enough? Is NHTSA doing enough?

Brown: I think they're doing quite a bit. I think that there's a significant investment in ongoing enforcement campaigns, which obviously has some issues in our aware our greater awareness of equity. We probably have some issues we need to address there. But yeah, they're funding enforcement. They're also funding behavioral campaigns designed to help people pay attention behind the wheel and buckle their seatbelts. I mean, even campaigns like, you know, check your back seat to make sure that you didn't leave your child in the back in a hot car. To me, as a parent, fortunately my son's now in college, and I don't have to worry about these things. I can't imagine forgetting that I have a child in the car, but it happens. It happens more frequently than we even know. So, yeah, I think NHTSA has got a fairly robust campaign out there. Obviously, we probably can all do more. It may just come back to this idea that stuff happens to other people and not wearing a seatbelt isn't going to matter because I’m not going to get into a car crash. It may be just like all the other things where we are out trying to educate people on how to keep themselves safe.

Cranson: Yeah, I think you're right. I think those are some good thoughts. And we'll never want to leave our conversations without at least touching on safety and our efforts Toward Zero Deaths and the Vision Zero programs at the national level and of course, the continuing drumbeat about using crash and not accident. So, Lloyd, thanks for taking time to do this. I hope you and your family have a nice Thanksgiving. And once again, I’m glad you and Stephanie were not severely injured in that crash.

Brown: Yeah, happy holidays to you and yours too, Jeff. We'll talk to you soon, and thanks for having me on.

Cranson: Sure. Since it is Thanksgiving week, I want to acknowledge among the many things I’m thankful for are the dedication and skill some members of the team bring to producing this podcast each week. All these people are already busy in their regular jobs, and the podcast is added work. So, thank you to Randy Debler who edits the audio, Courtney Bates who posts the audio and the show notes, Sara Koenigsknecht for completing transcription, and Jesse Ball for social media support and proofreading the show notes. And thank you to the listeners, and I hope you all have a nice Thanksgiving.