One of the mobility-related issues that has come up in the debates for the June 18th KCMO Mayoral and City Council election is the idea of a city-level Department of Transportation, or DOT. It’s an idea that we have been researching and studying for some time now. This is why we believe a KC DOT could be an effective strategy for improving mobility across the city and addressing the many challenges of a fractured transportation structure spread across multiple silos in City Hall. It could be especially effective in addressing long standing community frustration with the pace of improvements for people who walk, bike, and use transit.
Why does KC need a DOT?
The process of setting up a DOT would be a huge opportunity to review and streamline processes and roles across several City Hall departments. It’s ultimately about change management and organizational optimization for the second largest expense for KC’s working families.
- Create a high level vision and strategic plan for transportation, and detail how it supports other city goals for equity, housing, economic development, sustainability, and public health;
- Provide focus and priority required to respond to evolving mobility demands;
- Eliminate duplication of efforts and expenses across departments – including potholes, snow clearing, and maintenance;
- Designate responsibility and accountability for getting projects built on time and on budget;
- Improve communication with the public, giving residents and neighborhoods a single point of contact for projects in their communities;
- Realize cost savings can be re-invested in fixing more potholes, re-building more streets, and improving safety for people walking and biking; and
- Identify new revenue models to fund city services and infrastructure investments.
It’s clear that the future of transportation in Kansas City is, and must be, very different than it has been over the past several decades. New technologies, changing demographics, new lifestyle preferences, and a growing awareness of the fairness and equity impacts of our infrastructure decisions are shaping dramatic changes in the choices people make for how to get around, in how we think about access to opportunity, and in how businesses move freight and goods into and through the city. Without priority from the Mayor and Council, the urgent task of planning our transportation systems has fallen through the cracks, and we see the symptoms of this systemic break down on issue after issue.
A deeper look at the details
KCMO covers an enormous geographic area. To connect our far-flung City, KCMO has an outsized street network for our population and tax base. The task of building and maintaining roads in KCMO is critical, and the challenges the City faces with this task are manifest in the steady stream of infrastructure related issues that rise to the forefront of public debate (potholes, sidewalk repair, bike infrastructure, traffic calming, complete streets, etc.). A DOT would serve as an effective convener, holding the city even more accountable through a transparent evaluation framework on all mobility-related infrastructure (streets, sidewalks) and services (which should include the movement of people AND goods, even garbage).
Currently, with needs that far exceed resources, our city’s Public Works staff has no choice but to be capable and efficient in the core functions of the department: building, maintaining, and managing public streets and infrastructure. Likewise, Planning and Development Services faces similar challenges, focused on its own critical tasks of coordinating development and planning for sustainable and thriving neighborhoods. Other departments like Parks and Water Services also have large roles in parts of the transportation system, especially bike lanes and trails. These roles are often outside their usual competencies, an additional burden to their core missions, and are additional silos within the City Hall organization.
It would be unfair and unreasonable to ask staff focused on the critical functions of building and maintaining our streets and neighborhoods to do this work while also taking on an entirely new scope of responsibilities. The Mayor and City Council must make planning transportation systems, including transportation policy development, a priority.
A new DOT would treat the cause of our infrastructure challenges rather than the symptoms, by focusing resources and attention on the comprehensive and forward thinking transportation strategies that will enable KCMO to thrive in the future.
A new DOT would direct and empower staff whose primary purpose is long range transportation planning, strategic coordination of projects, integration of new modes and technologies, alignment of infrastructure investment with broader city priorities, and innovation in project delivery.
Public Works would be able to focus on delivering and managing excellent projects, and City Planning would be able to focus on managing growth and development. Our transportation issues can’t be an afterthought anymore. They deserve the focus and priority of a department-level team.
A new DOT would provide clarity and consistency for City policies and infrastructure investments through a citywide vision. This will help us move beyond the project-based approach that doesn’t necessarily move the needle in outcomes across all neighborhoods. This would improve engagement and community buy-in and support other departments in delivering better projects.
A City DOT is not a groundbreaking idea. Our most successful peer cities have recognized this need and reoriented their own City structures to focus on strategic planning for transportation and infrastructure issues. There are many models to accomplish this but the common thread in successful cities is leadership and making this a priority.
Do we need more bureaucracy?
Part of the debate about a DOT during election season has included concerns about creating a new department and expanding the city bureaucracy at a time when the city’s General Fund is under pressure from many competing needs, especially affordable housing, pensions, and the ever-growing expense of police and firefighting. This is of course a valid concern.
The good news is that most cities are able to implement a DOT with minimal impact on the budget. Existing organizational structures can be reformed and existing positions can be redeployed. If a DOT is done correctly, there should actually be cost savings from being more efficient, more effective, more accountable, and more timely. By streamlining and coordinating redundant efforts, a KCMO DOT would maximize the use of resources, introduce innovative new strategies and thought leadership, and serve as an effective facilitator for better community outcomes. Cost savings can be reinvested in filling more potholes, rebuilding more streets, providing more transit, and improving the safety of people who walk, bike, and/or who have accessibility barriers.