“Legislative intent has indicated that state departments of transportation have shown a strong desire to bring about an emphasis on modes other the well-established and extensively funded highway mode.”
In early 1973, the idea of a multimodal state department of transportation was a novel one. Legislatures were adopting authorizing legislation that cobbled together existing parts of state agencies along with new duties to create what we now recognize as a state DOT. When Professor Norman Ashford of Loughborough University penned the article “The Planning Function in State Departments of Transportation” for Traffic Quarterly, there were nineteen state DOTs established, and more on the way. He spotted a trend among the burgeoning state DOTs where planning capabilities were being established to complement the traditional engineering and construction roles.
The article captures the spirit of the time period—one of excitement, innovation, and wide open policy possibility. The transportation field was in a period of profound change, with the recent establishment of USDOT, formation of state DOTs, public takeovers of public transport, and flush with cash from interstate highway construction. Dr. Ashford expressed hope that the planning office of the state DOTs would have equal status to other functional units and perform both policy and system planning. He had particularly strong faith in the multimodal focus of the new state DOT planning offices: “Legislative intent has indicated that state departments of transportation have shown a strong desire to bring about an emphasis on modes other the well-established and extensively funded highway mode.”
While some of his predictions panned out, many of them proved to be rosy forecasts. One development Professor Ashford could not have foreseen was the establishment of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) by the Federal-Aid Highway Act in August of 1973—only eight months after the article was published. The Act stripped state DOTs of their capital planning authority in urban areas; and likely with it Norman Ashford’s vision of holistic, multimodal statewide policy and system planning.
Written by Alex Bond, former Director of the Center for Transportation Leadership at Eno