Illinois's Secretary of Transportation is Bringing IDOT into The Modern Era

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a talk/question and answer session with the current Illinois Secretary of Transportation, Randall Blankenhorn. He was mostly speaking to transportation graduate students and academics at Northwestern University, along with some industry professionals. Governer Bruce Rauner appointed Blankenhorn in January of this year, and since he has joined the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) he has been very outspoken about how even after a year of modernization, IDOT is just becoming a 1980s DoT.

So why did I feel the need to write this up? Well, Blankenhorn seems to be a rare public figure who wants to drastically speed up government processes and says all the right things even if they are not always politically convenient. Moving forward though, this is the story of his first year as he presents it and as I interpret it. To give a little more context, back in 2006 Blankenhorn helped create the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which successfully created the very first long-term regional plan for the Chicago metropolitan area. This plan, GO TO 2040, is incredibly ambitious and really paves the way forward to create livable communities with a focus on efficient government and integration with existing societies. The plan won numerous awards from the EPA, TRB, and some smaller organizations as well.

Moving on, here are some highlights from the session:

  • He finds overhead signs on highways mostly useless given the amount of technology people currently have in their vehicles. While there are some issues with how to deliver information to people's phones/cars while they are driving, the overhead LED signs cost ridiculous amounts of money to purchase and operate.
  • This year IDOT created the first protected bike path along a highway in Illinois. The agency wanted to wait and analyze it for two years, but he wants to start pushing forward with new bike paths to keep the momentum going and not get stuck in the pitfalls of a government time horizon.
  • He really wants to get away from standard performance metrics and move towards a focus on good value projects instead.
  • Wants to shift cost metrics towards ownership rather than building so that they don't spend all of the capital they raise through traditional means on the building segment.
  • While he's a big user-fee guy, he wants to shift the cost to beneficiaries instead although. I thought this was already the case since trucks pay tax on diesel and the like, but he wants to place some of the risk of things like new train depots on private companies who benefit too.
  • He told a story about refusing to promote someone who had high ratings simply because the person had never meaningfully disagreed with him - doesn't want yes-people.
  • He forced people to give input at first by telling the people under him to figure it out themselves until they were willing to speak freely.
  • Admits that IDOT is incapable of handling the explosion of data that is happening right now.
  • The amount of time it takes to pay back a loan should not exceed the lifetime of the project. In the same vein, loans should only be for very big projects, not just a lane widening of a small rural road.
  • Apparently housing prices didn't go down close to transit stations during the Great Recession, which he often uses as justification for new developments.
  • He tries to make sure any new transportation projects considers how people might be displaced by gentrification and tries to incorporate affordable housing so people can continue to live in their communities.
  • He cares about regional economies, and doesn't worry if policies like a Vehicle Mileage Tax send some business to another state like Indiana because those other states will suffer under the toll it takes on the infrastructure.
  • The Midwest finally created their first regional plan for the trucking industry and it has been tremendously beneficial for all states. He wants to coordinate even more with other states on new long-distance projects.
  • "Congestion pricing will happen in this state under my term." - Randall Blankenhorn
  • Understands that reliability is by far the most important factor in people's commutes and that reliability is the main reason people are willing to sit in traffic in a car by themselves every day.
  • Since Illinois is basically funding Amtrak in the state, he wants to start demanding on-time performance as if they actually owned Amtrak. He took Amtrak 4 times to his vacation house a state over, and the earliest he arrived was an hour and a half late. Wow.

To me there are only two themes he didn't talk about. First, he did not mention the environment once through the talk, which makes me think there are some politics he has to be careful about. As you can probably guess from all my posts on sustainability, I think this is something really important to consider when developing new transportation infrastructure. The second issue is not really something that professionals talk about much, which is that tolls and taxes are fundamentally regressive. This is perfectly fine to me in an urban setting where alternatives are readily available. The bigger issue is in rural communities where vehicle operating costs can represent a large part of a household's income. These people get hit harder than anyone else by highway tolling and raises usage-based taxes and have no choice but to drive. Blankenhorn sidesteps the issue by pointing out that relying on things like the gas tax or a vehicle-mileage tax where revenue depends on a lot of drivers is a little bit silly. He also is working with some small communities to figure out how to create small transit options for them, even if it is only a small shuttle in between towns. I don't blame him for not talking about the regressive impact of taxes, since this is something that almost nobody I know in transportation really finds compelling. All that considered, if he gets a congestion charge going for Chicago, I'm completely supportive. I also have no qualms about user-fees with alternatives available. Even good government agencies have trouble modernizing, and even in his first year, Randall Blankenhorn is taking an agency that he admits is still outdated and is pushing it into the 21st century.