Wanted: A leader who can take Pittsburgh’s transportation planning to the next level.
Under Mayor Bill Peduto’s proposed 2017 budget, that person would head the Department of Mobility & Infrastructure, a brand-new agency tasked with “provid[ing] a safe, sustainable and efficient system of transportation and accessibility.”
“In the last few years in the city of Pittsburgh, we’ve made a lot of great strides in transportation,” Sam Ashbaugh, Pittsburgh’s budget office director, told The Incline.
This includes increasing funding to resurface streets, securing grants to build bike lanes and developing a complete streets policy that takes into account drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, he said.
Pittsburgh was also a finalist in the Smart City Challenge, a federal competition for $50 million in transportation funding. (Columbus won.) That process revealed a need “to look at developing and executing a long-term vision for smart transportation,” Ashbaugh said. This includes getting “better at project management and increasing policy coordination.”
Today, transportation responsibilities are divided up between several departments, authorities and organizations both inside and outside the city. This includes the Department of Public Works, Department of City Planning and Urban Redevelopment Authority Of Pittsburgh. But there isn’t one person who serves as an ambassador for Pittsburgh’s transportation vision, or one agency tasked with thinking about the bigger picture — about what comes next and how it fits into the city’s future.
“We really need to be not just about the modes, but how we utilize technology and other things to think about transportation,” Ashbaugh said.
Enter the Department of Mobility & Infrastructure, born out of conversations between Peduto and some of his chiefs of staff.
In summer 2015, the mayor approached the nonprofit National Association of City Transportation Officials for its expertise on the subject. NACTO then connected the administration to Sam Salkin, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate student, who in turn researched “best practices and new approaches in transportation leadership structures around the country,” Ashbaugh said.
What Salkin found after meeting with DPW and DCP staff, as well as other stakeholders: “In every meeting, interviewees were asked to explain their perception of Pittsburgh’s vision or goals for transportation. Consistently, no one was able to provide an answer.”
The mayor, on the other hand, “laid out a clear transportation vision in three parts,” Salkin wrote.
Salkin also found a lack of communication between agencies and stakeholders, which led to missed opportunities. (For example, when DPW repaves streets, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planner usually doesn’t get the plans early enough to propose new bike lane infrastructure that could be installed concurrently.)
Earlier this year, Salkin met with the mayor and recommended the creation of a transportation director position, which Peduto embraced, Ashbaugh said.
The city posted that job today with a yearly salary of $103,936. According to Ashbaugh, candidates will be interviewed throughout the fall with the goal of giving Peduto the ability to hire someone to start in early 2017. Members of the administration will also attend NACTO’s conference this week to recruit candidates.
“We want this to be a nationwide search,” Ashbaugh said.
The department will start with a “skeleton crew,” as Ashbaugh put it: a director, an assistant director and two other full-time positions in 2017. Ashbaugh said the mayor wants whoever is hired to lead the department to “come in and not worry about running a huge bureaucracy.”
Instead, the director’s first task will be to examine the current state of transportation planning and policy in Pittsburgh then make recommendations later that year to be included in the 2018 budget.
“The mayor thought this needed to be a bold initiative,” Ashbaugh said.