Broad Base of Transportation Experience Prepared Richards to Run Pennsylvania DOT
Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation (PennDOT) Secretary Leslie S. Richards is known in both public and private sectors for her ability to build consensus in solving problems. Over the past two decades, her extensive leadership experience in transportation management, work in the planning and engineering fields and in local government have given her a broad perspective on understanding stakeholder issues and on the importance of bringing projects to successful completion.
A graduate of Brown University, Richards studied economics and urban studies and she holds a master's degree in regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Her early roles in the private sector included positions with engineering and consulting firms, where she served as a public involvement specialist at a consulting firm managing multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects such as bridge rehabilitation, street scape improvements, trail and park development, environmental assessments and feasibility studies. Her experience also included long-range strategic plans as well as facilitation of public meetings with residents, business owners, and government officials regarding transportation issues in urban, rural, and suburban communities.
Working the Private Sector
She says her most relevant private sector experience was her role as a Senior Project Manager and Public Involvement Specialist at A.D. Marble and Company, a women-owned environmental engineering firm in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, from 2003 to 2010. "It was a great opportunity for me to be part of the senior management team as we transitioned to an employee owned firm," recalled Richards. "Doing this during the economic downturn certainly was a challenge. I learned how to gather input thoughtfully and work with employees in this situation, which was particularly tough given the economic factors and the change that took place. This experience was extremely valuable in preparing me for my current role." As the head of Marble's public involvement department, Richards went out into local communities to learn more about people's perceptions of how they would be impacted by projects. Here, she gained experience interacting with government officials, businesses and consultants, which gave her the ability to understand each group's needs.
In a later position, Richards was a Senior Project Manager for ACT Engineers, a woman-owned civil engineering firm in Robbinsville, New Jersey. "In this role, I was responsible for certification of the company as a woman-owned business. That experience was helpful for my role at PennDOT, since one of my areas of focus has been to make sure we are more inclusive in our hiring process. Additionally, what I learned from both being part of a team and leading a team as well as bringing large projects to completion on time and on budget, have all helped in my current role serving the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
Richards remained focused on transportation and planning issues in her subsequent public sector roles. She served as the Vice Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, where she led transportation and planning initiatives for the state's third largest county. In addition, Richards served as Chair of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, as well as on the boards of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and the Greater Valley Forge Transportation Management Association (GVFTMA). During this time, she played an active role working with state legislators in passing Pennsylvania's far-reaching transportation plan, Act 89, in 2013. The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously confirmed Richards nomination as Secretary on May 11, 2015.
She outlined Act 89's innovative, multi-modal program as allowing Pennsylvania to invest in critically needed rail-freight upgrades, especially to enhance service through the Port of Philadelphia; also to help keep aviation moving forward and to encourage cost-saving consolidations in transit agencies; and is promoting transportation alternatives for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Challenges for Richards at the helm of PennDOT have been numerous - both expected and unexpected. Foremost is working within a state agency while learning what is allowed and not allowed in terms of hiring, promotion and compensation. "This is a public sector challenge that I did not have in the private sector," she commented. Also, in terms of working with the state legislature, "Every issue is important to them, but I have to look at the big-picture impact. It takes a lot of focus to make sure every district gets the attention they deserve. The 253 legislators have 253 needs. I do understand the pressures they are under and their desire to serve their own constituents. But at the same time, I must oversee a $2.4 billon construction program this calendar year for roughly 820 highway and bridge projects, which includes rail, freight, aviation, ports and roads."
The following example describes her most recent funding hurdle: While 2013's Act 89 provides a majority of PennDOT's long-term funding, annual dollars for ongoing improvements come from the state's dedicated Motor License Fund (MLF). Underwritten by fuel taxes and license fees, the MLF accounts for a large part of PennDOT's overall funding equation. Over the last decade, larger shares of the more than $2 billion a year from the MLF have been dedicated to State Police. Last fiscal year, their share was $755 million and was projected to reach $1 billion a year by the end of the decade. Richards said as a result, PennDOT hasn't been able to maintain assets properly or start new projects. "This diversion of funds threatens to impair PennDOT's ability to manage highway and bridge assets and start new projects," she commented. However, the state's recently enacted 2016-17 fiscal year budget starts on the path to address the issue. This year's State Police budget will be held flat for 2017-18 and will be reduced by more than $32.3 million each year until 2027-28 when it is $500 million.
Embracing New Technologies
As in any industry, technology contributes to ongoing change and improvement. For transportation, Richards mentioned real time data collection (RTD) as an important advance. "We are able to look at new solutions for ways to connect and using RTD to solve that issue. It's often impossible to add lanes to a road but we are looking at other ways," she noted. PennDOT's I-76 corridor study to look for innovative ways to deal with long-standing congestion in the Philadelphia region on the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76). The section of the interstate being studied carries in excess of 100,000 vehicles a day. Options include possible Intelligent Transportation signage with information about schedules on adjacent regional rail lines and expanding shoulders for periodic traffic use as some possible ways to alleviate congestion.
Other technology tools used by PennDOT include the Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system to improve snow maintenance during the winter months. "Another exciting option we are exploring now is for autonomous/self-driving cars. "This would be a great asset to many, especially the handicapped and elderly," Richards shared.
In a June 27 hearing before the Pennsylvania Senate Transportation Committee, Richards discussed her concerns about ongoing funding challenges, but also made the following comments about autonomous/self-driving technology:
"One pillar of the Act 89 transportation plan is PennDOT's commitment to continue its legacy of seeking more efficient and effective ways to deliver transportation products and services.
We at PennDOT, in conjunction with the General Assembly, are positioning Pennsylvania as a leader in the evolution of autonomous vehicles. We hosted an event earlier this month at Carnegie Melon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh to open the first meeting of a newly established Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force that will collaboratively develop guidance that PennDOT will use when drafting autonomous vehicle policy. PennDOT is chairing the task force, which is comprised of state, federal and private-industry officials such as the Federal Highway Administration, AAA, Carnegie Mellon and Uber Technologies.
We also used the event to call attention to the introduction of legislation to permit testing of autonomous vehicles on our road network. The legislation would:
"¢ Provide for controlled automated vehicle testing, not operation;
"¢ Allow flexibility to adapt to changing technology;
"¢ Require companies interested in testing to submit an application and provide proof of $5 million in general liability insurance; and
"¢ Allow support for in-vehicle and remote-operator testing, considered the "Full Self-Driving Automation" level, the fourth and highest level of automation as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
CMU demonstrated its autonomous technologies after the task force event. The university's faculty and students have been working for more than 30 years to ensure that self-driving cars will be safe, affordable, and ultimately, accepted by the public. The university has made significant contributions to AV technology inventions and has created 14 generations of self-driving vehicles. The university's latest self-driving car is a 2011 Cadillac SRX that takes ramps, merges onto highways, and cruises at 70 mph by itself.
Autonomous Vehicles, or cars/trucks that drive themselves, now exist. They are being tested, and will likely be ready for use by the general public within 10 years. Pennsylvania is one of the national centers for automated vehicle research. CMU has partnered with General Motors to conduct autonomous vehicle research and testing in the Pittsburgh region. Recently, CMU joined forces with Uber, which created an "Advance Technology Center" in Pittsburgh. With CMU's track record and reputation as a magnet, other leading innovators in the field, including Google and Bosch, have planted their flags in the Pittsburgh region.
PennDOT's goal is to position the Commonwealth to capitalize on this emerging technology and to provide leadership nationally and internationally by embracing and fostering autonomous vehicle development and testing as a means to enhance safety, promote innovation and economic growth, and gain recognition as a public-sector agent of positive change. This is both an opportunity to transform and expand mobility for people and goods, as well as to put Pennsylvania at the epicenter of a transformative technology, with all the attendant economic benefits such leadership entails.
Currently, Pennsylvania's Vehicle Code does not specifically address autonomous vehicles, so these vehicles may be tested and operated by anyone on Pennsylvania roadways without any oversight so long as there is a driver behind the wheel responsible for ultimate control of the vehicle. Since the absence of oversight may bring about potential safety issues as the testing of the technology expands, PennDOT is working with the Legislature on pending legislation designed to balance highway safety with the rapid technological advancement of software companies and car manufacturers."
When asked about whether she sees funding sources for federal highway projects shrinking with a new president and administration coming in 2017, Richards said that Federal funding under a new reauthorization law known as the Fast Act increases slightly from $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion. This five-year transportation plan helps states like Pennsylvania look ahead to the overall transportation network and resources. "I'm the first secretary in the Commonwealth in 17 years to be able to plan ahead. And while it isn't an increase, we can at least plan appropriately," she concluded.