she climbs in herself

Getting the most out of your DOT public involvement process

she climbs in herself

Public roads should be for all users, serving this generation and the next.

Our recent Complete Streets campaign was a success in the sense that we were able to give feedback early enough in the process to make a difference.

Unfortunately, I owe this to a chance encounter in a grocery story, where someone mentioned the public hearing to me. As a leader of a local bike advocacy group, you would think it would be easy for me to be in the loop about major road projects so I could provide feedback on it. But since I’ve been in Richmond, I’ve seen two other major road projects begin construction before I even realized they were in the design phase.

If you’d like to better understand the “public involvement process” of INDOT or your state’s Department of Transportation, here’s what I’ve learned thus far.

Learning the rules of engagement

A key step is to find your DOT’s “Public Involvement” policy. Here’s INDOT’s Public Involvement policy. I did a quick search to see if I could find Kentucky’s policy online as a test. It appears that this the Public Involvement page for for KYDOT.

If you can’t find your state’s online, you could always request it from them (since it’s a public document). Also, your state-level bike advocacy group may have it.

To find your state-level bike advocacy groups, you can try a state-wide search on the League’s Find-It search, or try the groups listed on the list, although it may be outdated.

Getting advance notice about state road projects

INDOT’s Public Involvement policy describes how it will be “proactive” and “innovative” and how they will maintain a database of stakeholders to keep in touch with. Based on this policy language, I would expect INDOT to make some effort to find local bike advocacy groups and notify them about road projects. Here are some ways you can plug into your state DOT’s public involvement process:

  1. Encourage them to pro-actively contact you. If your state policy has wording like INDOT’s, then you can contact them to to suggest they follow their own policy. Let them know that according to their own policy, it would be reasonable for them to notify local bike advocacy groups about road projects in their area. If the bike group can’t be found through a quick internet search, then the local city’s or the state-level bike advocacy groups likely can easily identify them. INDOT already notifies groups and agencies about air quality, water quality, hazarderous materials, historic homes and social justice concerns. It’s reasonable to point that it seems a bit curious to skip over notifying some groups are actually focused on using roads for transportation . For a truly pro-active and innovative approach, state DOTs could use a web-based database that allowed you to sign up for project notices based on your location and other criteria. Open source software for the project could be shared between the states to minimize the cost. (Compared to the cost of a road project, it’s an inexpensive solution). The more feedback the DOTs get about their public involvement process, the more likely they are to change.
  2. Find out about every project INDOT’s policy includes a clause that allows any group to sign up on a list so that they get all notices about state road projects. You could take this route, although the amount of projects that don’t apply to you could be overwhelming. I have not yet done this.
  3. Ask your City our State bike advocacy group to notify you. City’s are already on the list of organizations that get early notifications about road projects. If you are on good terms with your City, you can ask them to pass along details of any upcoming road project. If that’s not feasible, you can ask a state-level bike advocacy group to take on the job of receiving all of the state road notices, and then notifying local bike advocacy groups when matching projects are announced. Not all state-level groups may have the resources to do this.

Access to design drawings and documents

This idea comes from a practicing traffic engineer in Illinois:
DOTs could release their design drawings in Google Earth format. Having easier access to the designs they want the public to comment on would make more accessible. Mention on the public record that it would benefit the process if environmental documents could be available as PDFs, and design drawings available in Google Earth (the KML file format).

Federal involvement

INDOT’s document is peppered with mentions of federal involvement in the process behind the scenes– the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Notice that it’s the FHWA that grants the “final location approval”, not INDOT. So, make a point to let your DOT know that your project should follow the federal guidelines for bicycle and pedestrian accomodation. I’ve quoted the relevant federal policy recently, but it bears repeating:

The DOT policy is to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects. Every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems. Because of the numerous individual and community benefits that walking and bicycling provide — including health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of life — transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.

Every state DOT should be incorporating this policy into their projects.

Don’t let formality stop you

When it was time for our community to take action, our local bike advocacy group had yet to achieve non-profit status. For that matter, we haven’t had a physical meeting in months. Still, in just about two days times we were able to reach thousands of people and collects over a hundred signatures on a petition supporting our city’s request for a new direction. Now there are many options of for using social media to spread the word: e-mail, twitter, Facebook, blogs, and old-fashioned networking.

In a future post I’ll share more details our recent campaign put together
these details to petition INDOT.