Leslie Richards began her career in public service after years of working on the ground in the planning and engineering fields. Fresh out of college, she joined the EPA as an environmental planner and then moved on to a woman-owned engineering firm, where she cut her teeth working on major transportation projects across the state. She was elected in 2011 to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, where she focused on reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges.
For a newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf, who tapped Richards for the position in early 2015, she had just the right background to lead the state Department of Transportation (PennDOT). As calls for safer, more multi-modal streets grow louder, the agency is increasingly looking at novel approaches to moving Pennsylvanians around. Here, Richards talks about how she tackles transportation needs in such a varied state, and what PennDOT is doing to embrace forms of travel other than driving.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You arrived in Harrisburg from Montgomery County. What new challenges emerged as you moved from the local to the state level?
Obviously, I’m in charge of a lot larger area. In Montgomery County, I was very involved in transportation issues and trail issues. But here I have more influence on the policy level, where we can really impact not just the short term but also the long term.
Pennsylvania is home to cities and municipalities with very different transportation needs. How does your agency determine the best approach to each particular place?
There are 11 PennDOT districts, and I’ve traveled to each and every one. While quality of life is important to everybody, what defines that quality of life is very different as you travel across the state. In our more urban districts, transit goes hand-in-hand with vehicular traffic. The volumes of traffic differ as you go from an urbanized area to a rural area. For instance, in a suburban area transit may mean bus services. It may mean vanpools. It may mean trying to get employees to their employers, and there may not be a clear rail line to get there. Some of our rural areas really suffer when there is a lot of truck traffic coming through, creating wear and tear on their roads.
“In general it is not an overall aim of ours to reduce the number of roads. That’s not something we come in every day and are thinking about.”
So we work with our transit-management associations throughout the state. We work very closely with Metropolitan Planning Organizations and Rural Planning Organizations to see how we can be the most helpful. We have to make sure that these communities can function at the best level that they can. Again, for every community that means something different.
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are exempt from the Bicycle Occupancy Permit [see our explainer on the BOP]. Many advocates consider it to be yet another hurdle for cash-strapped local governments considering bike infrastructure. Is anything being done to change the policy or help municipalities work around it?
We are taking a look at it now to see how effective it is. We know we want to develop a plan to prioritize bicycling networks and identify specific routes that are marked as bicycle lanes, as opposed to just shoulders. We’re looking at the possibility of funding the maintenance projects associated with these bicycle lanes, and we’re looking to do this across the state.
The question of failing infrastructure is paramount in Pennsylvania. Aside from simply repairing bridges and roads, does PennDOT have any other strategies in its arsenal? Are phasing out, reducing use or sustainable rebuilding, for instance, on the table?
This is a national problem and, of course, it’s a problem here with PennDOT. There’s been deferred maintenance for decades. The age of our infrastructure here, along with our fellow Northeastern states, is difficult. So we are very happy that the legislature, in a very bipartisan way, passed Act 89, which gives us more funding than many of our neighboring states. Of course, it’s never enough for the need. We are always prioritizing. We take a look and make sure things are needed, but in general it is not an overall aim of ours to reduce the number of roads. That’s not something we come in every day and are thinking about.
PennDOT has talked about adding a deck to I-76 in order to relieve congestion, and has even floated the idea of opening up the shoulders to commuter traffic during rush hour. But studies have shown that adding highway capacity doesn’t reduce congestion in the long run, because it only induces more drivers to take the highways.
A study is being down right now. It should be done by the end of June, and it’s looking at a variety of issues. It’s not really a capacity-increasing project. We are working within the confines and the right-away, and we are trying to figure out how we can use technology and real-time data to improve the flow of traffic in this very congested area. We have the shoulder lane idea you referred to. We are looking at variable speed limits, which would take real-time data to determine the current situation and how we slow or increase speeds to allow traffic to move better. We are looking at lane designations and lane changes. That’s just some of the ways we’re using technology. We’re not really looking at increasing capacity on that corridor.
Do you have any safety concerns about removing a breakdown lane from a major highway, even if it’s only during set times?
Absolutely, and that’s why I am very eager to see the findings of the study. We are working very closely with emergency responders to see how it would impact their response times and how they service their communities. Of course, if there is a huge safety outcome that we just can’t overcome, then that’s not one of the options that we’re going to follow through with. I’ve been very clear that this study may give us information telling us that this is just not an option. We are hoping that it will make sense, but it’s quite possible that it won’t.
Last year, you did an interview with PlanPhilly where you said that you hadn’t heard of Vision Zero. The concept has gained a lot of traction in Philly and elsewhere. Has it reached the state level?
Is that referring to getting to zero deaths and fatalities on our roadways?
Yeah, absolutely. That is our goal. While I was happy to report that 2015 was our second-lowest year in terms of fatalities since we started keeping records, it was still at 1,200, and 1,200 is way too high. We know that we can work together and further reduce that number.
Any specific initiatives related to preventing bicycle or pedestrian deaths?
We are working with our safety partners, which includes law enforcement, our planning partners, our colleagues at the Turnpike Commission. I’m very optimistic that we will have a lot of ideas which we will put into a plan. It could involve how to deal with aggressive drivers, speeding issues, intersections where we see a high volume of traffic. We will also be looking at some low-cost safety measures, like rumble-strips, signage and pavement markings.
Photo by Tayarisha Poe