With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last month, Minnesota and the nation have a chance to set new priorities for transportation infrastructure investments. More than ever before, the act allows us to evaluate whether projects open paths to opportunity, improve safety or address pre-existing inequities.
To embrace this opportunity will require the expansion of work already underway in Minnesota. It will require leaders to elevate metrics in our decision-making processes that address long-term goals such as improving health outcomes or slowing climate change by reducing emissions.
We don’t need to wonder about how to shift our evaluation of potential projects. We possess a wealth of options already, many of them drawn from research and pilot efforts conducted in Minnesota. We have the expertise — in our communities, universities, public agencies and the private sector — to put them into practice.
We must evaluate projects based on potential health impacts. Existing tools such as health impact assessments enable agencies to better weigh the costs and benefits of proposed projects. Further, ongoing engagement efforts such as the Equity and Health Assessment of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) represent new mechanisms to give communities meaningful input into a project’s shape.
We must also assess projects based on how they could help slow climate change — for example, elevating projects that will reduce vehicle miles traveled and emissions by providing safe options for walking, biking or transit. This is already a primary plank of MnDOT’s Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council.
Across the nation, past infrastructure dollars have been inequitably distributed and we must make better choices. Harris County, Texas, for example, has responded to inequitable flood mitigation investments by instituting an equity framework that prioritizes flood resilience projects in historically under-resourced communities.
Safety, already a paramount concern of initiatives such as Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths and local Vision Zero efforts, must also be a deliberate evaluative lens. Through studies of traffic patterns, engineering approaches and human factors, we know what kinds of road segments are most dangerous. We also know ways to address those issues.
Transportation is about access to goods, services and destinations. How a project changes access — either opening or limiting connection to locations such as schools, jobs or health care — is measurable and we can prioritize those that afford more access. The University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory, an ongoing research effort funded by MnDOT and a larger group of state DOTs, offers annually updated evaluations of access to different destinations by different modes of travel in metro areas across the nation.
We also need to capitalize on the infrastructure act’s broader call for research. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems are leaders in transportation research and future workforce development. MnDOT is a national model for supporting and incorporating research into its operations. Innovative, collaborative research between such partners and industry can help scale critical interventions and, in turn, build safety, sustainability and opportunity outcomes into transportation projects.
Further, we must place a larger focus on piloting and tracking the performance of our interventions. When we rebuild an intersection or pilot new technology, pre- and post-intervention performance research should be included. If projects aren’t meeting objectives, we must be willing to shift tactics.
Researchers, residents and public agencies can work together to calibrate how to evaluate projects and identify where they fit alongside broader comprehensive plans and interconnected systems.
Undertaking such an effort won’t come without convening, debate and compromise. The new bill won’t address every need, so informed, yet difficult, decisions will need to be made. This won’t happen without recognition that new policies require clear communication with the public about why such moves are essential. It won’t happen without acknowledging that every community has different transportation needs and they cannot be effectively served by the same solutions.
We should use the infrastructure act to collectively identify goals, prioritize investments, track the efficacy of those interventions and not be afraid to change course in order to reach our desired outcomes. Much of this work has begun already in Minnesota. If we further commit to those efforts, the state can build an integrated, effective transportation system that serves all residents and becomes a model for the nation.
Kyle Shelton, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.