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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - July/August 2016

July/August 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 1
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Climbing The Ladders of Opportunity

by Danielle Coles

USDOT is committed to providing pathways to jobs, connecting people to essential services, and revitalizing communities through transportation planning.


Highways like this one in Boston, MA, have sometimes created physical barriers, dividing neighborhoods and limiting access to economic opportunities.


The American Dream promises that no matter who you are or where you are from, if you work hard and follow the rules, you should be able to secure a good job, support a family, and find a niche in your community. It promises that there are no limits to success, and that humble beginnings can develop into extraordinary endings. However, for many socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, the American Dream is not always achievable. Limited access to job opportunities, quality education, and healthy food; lack of adequate living wages and affordable housing; unstable home environments; and financial illiteracy can all serve as barriers to economic mobility.

Since 2009, the Obama Administration has made several historic investments to create ladders of opportunity and help all Americans climb the rungs to a better future. The Administration also charged key Federal agencies with developing innovative initiatives to rebuild sustainable communities and connect people with jobs and other essential services.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation created a Ladders of Opportunity policy initiative. This initiative focuses on enhancing economic opportunities for underserved populations (minorities, low-income populations, persons with disabilities, older adults, and individuals with limited English proficiency) by investing in transportation projects that better connect communities to essential services--such as employment centers, health care, schools, healthy food, and recreation--more safely, reliably, and affordably.

Ladders of Opportunity has three concepts--work, connect, and revitalize--that promote thoughtful workforce development programs assisting disadvantaged people and businesses, a multimodal transportation system that improves connectivity, and revitalized transportation infrastructure that supports equitable business and residential development.

Righting the Wrongs

Although the public generally regards transportation infrastructure as a positive and progressive addition to the national landscape, for many underserved and disadvantaged communities, transportation can create barriers to economic and social opportunities. Highways offering increased mobility and railroads delivering necessary freight goods have divided some neighborhoods. In addition, uneven sidewalks and steep curbs are difficult for individuals in wheelchairs to navigate, and lack of clear crosswalks and signage force many pedestrians to make dangerous crossing decisions, or take unreasonably extended routes in favor of safety. Likewise, unreliable transit can add countless hours to commute times, taking away from other productive and enjoyable uses of time.


This street in a community in Seattle, WA, was designed with a complete streets approach to create a safe, connected, accessible, and multimodal transportation network.


As a child growing up in Charlotte, NC, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx saw firsthand the ways in which transportation projects can create barriers. He recalls: “We lived with my grandparents through my formative years in a home that was two blocks away from I–85 and two blocks away from I–77. Those walls were walls I saw every day. There was one way in and one way out of my neighborhood. And somehow I ingested this idea that my physical surroundings were all there was to the world.”

Education provided Secretary Foxx a beacon of hope and helped expand his horizons beyond his neighborhood perimeter. But, for many others, overcoming the disconnection of the built environment is far more challenging.

Through many speeches and forums, Secretary Foxx promotes Ladders of Opportunity as an initiative to help improve the future of transportation by learning from the mistakes of the past. In his remarks during the 2016 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting, Secretary Foxx charged planners and transportation officials to rethink the design of the Nation’s transportation infrastructure.

“We’ve got a chance to undo some of this damage and to build our transportation system in a way that is inclusive and connected, and becomes truly the connective tissue we want it to be,” he said. “Transportation is more than just the throughput. It’s placemaking. And if all of us at the Federal, State, and local level[s] take this seriously, we have the power to transform places in America through inclusive design.”


Before improvements, the Long Street Bridge over I–71 in Columbus, OH, was uninviting for pedestrians and bicyclists, limiting access to the Discovery District and downtown Columbus.


The new, redesigned Long Street Bridge cap features improved pedestrian and bicycle access and a cultural wall.


This cultural wall on the Long Street Bridge cap celebrates the people and the accomplishments of the King-Lincoln District and Discovery District neighborhoods.


Placemaking Across The Country

From coast to coast, cities are changing and reconnecting communities. In Columbus, OH, for example, a section of I–71 divided the historically African-American King-Lincoln District from the Discovery District and downtown Columbus. The Ohio Department of Transportation, City of Columbus, Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, and community activists, along with neighbors from Columbus’s Near East Side, joined together to construct the Long Street Bridge cap. The new park-like bridge features improved pedestrian access and a 240-foot (73-meter) cultural wall that celebrates the people and the accomplishments of the King-Lincoln and Discovery District neighborhoods. The bridge also includes accommodations for economic development, an effort to help revitalize and bring business investment back to the community.

In Lansing, MI, the Lake Lansing Road Bridge over U.S. 127 was built in 1970 with no pedestrian infrastructure. Over the years, significant residential and business development occurred on either side of the bridge, attracting high volumes of pedestrian traffic. However, existing sidewalks leading up to the bridge ended abruptly, causing pedestrians and bicyclists to carve out footpaths along the shoulders of the bridge. To improve safety and connectivity, the Michigan Department of Transportation partnered with the City of East Lansing, Lansing Township, and the Ingham County Road Department to construct sidewalks on the bridge and through the interchanges and approaches. As a result, pedestrians and bicycles now have access to the Eastwood Towne Center, as well as office buildings, restaurants, banks, medical facilities, and a grocery store.

This emphasis on placemaking and connectivity represents a fundamental shift from previous mobility-based planning to accessibility-based planning. Rather than focusing solely on mobility--the speed of movement from one location to another--transportation practitioners now incorporate accessibility, which considers how easily people of all abilities can reach activities and locations in a given amount of time using desired transportation modes.

To support this shift, a Transportation Pooled Fund Project at the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory is initiating a national dialogue on multimodal accessibility. The project will implement a measurement of accessibility to jobs by driving or transit within various time thresholds. The data, collected from multiple sources for transit and driving, will be the basis of a report that the University of Minnesota will begin to issue yearly for metropolitan areas across the United States.

Accessibility-based analysis can help identify gaps in equality of opportunity and work to ensure that all users--regardless of age, race, income, or disability--have access to safe, reliable, affordable, connected, and multimodal transportation networks.

USDOT’s Multimodal Approach

Investing in transportation projects that support Ladders of Opportunity is a top priority for USDOT.Beginning in 2013, USDOT expanded the criteria for the highly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant program to award funding to projects that support Ladders of Opportunity through emphasis on repairing existing infrastructure, connecting people to new jobs and opportunities, and contributing to economic growth.


The Atlanta BeltLine, shown here, connects 45 neighborhoods surrounding Atlanta, GA, and provides access to bus routes, rail stations, schools, restaurants, shopping, employment, and recreation.


During the last three rounds of TIGER grants, USDOT has awarded more than $1.5 billion, much of which supports projects exemplifying a commitment to enhancing access to opportunity. One example is the Atlanta BeltLine Corridor, a 33-mile (53-kilometer) system of trails, transit, and parks surrounding downtown Atlanta, GA. In 2013, the project was awarded $18 million to construct the Southwest Connector Trail, providing access for residents in primarily low-income communities and minority communities to bus routes, rail stations, schools, parks, and other recreational activities.

In another example, Point Hope, AK, received nearly $2.9 million to improve roads, purchase transit buses that are compliant with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and construct sidewalks throughout the community. Once completed, the project will provide accessible transportation to connect people to resources, services, jobs, training, and employment opportunities within the community and surrounding region.

In 2014, USDOT awarded approximately $100 million in funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s Ladders of Oppor-tunity Initiative, as part of that agency’s Bus and Bus Facilities Program. The purpose of the program is to support the development of communities by providing access to essential services via effective and reliable transit. The program funds the purchase, replacement, or rehabilitation of buses and vans, as well as the construction or rehabilitation of intermodal facilities providing bus services.

The program required eligible projects to support the five principles of Ladders of Opportunity: (1) enhance access to work, (2) provide more transportation choices, (3) support existing communities, (4) support economic opportunities, and (5) support partnerships. As of February 2016, 20 of the awarded projects are underway (roughly 95 percent of the $100 million has been obligated).

Similarly, in 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) awarded eight grants, totaling more than $21 million, to projects investing in safety at highway-rail grade crossings, positive train control implementation, and passenger rail. FRA selected projects for their ability to foster a safe, connected, accessible transportation system for the multimodal movement of people and goods, especially in the case of economically distressed areas.


This interagency team, shown here walking along I–295 outside Portland, ME, conducted a pedestrian and bicycle safety assessment to identify safety challenges and connectivity gaps in this bicycle and pedestrian network.


Safer People, Safer Streets

Another major USDOT activity supporting Ladders of Opportunity is the Safer People, Safer Streets Initiative for pedestrian and bicycle safety. Created in 2014, this initiative works to improve nonmotorized safety and assist communities in developing pedestrian and bicycle networks that are better connected. As part of the initiative, field offices and regional staff from the various modal administrations within USDOT collaborated to conduct a walking and biking assessment in every State to evaluate nonmotorized safety.

In addition to identifying gaps and areas for improvement, the safety assessments also sought to facilitate cross-organizational relationship building and partnerships. The USDOT Pedestrian and Bicyclist Road Safety Assessments Summary Report, released in October 2015, highlights successes, barriers, and potential solutions. The report is available at

Another aspect of Safer People, Safer Streets is the Mayors’ Challenge. In January 2015, Secretary Foxx encouraged mayors and other elected city officials to lead a call for action and participate in one or more activities to improve safety and accessibility for 1 year. Activities include taking a complete streets approach, addressing barriers, gathering data, using context sensitive design, creating bicycle and pedestrian networks, improving laws and regulations, and educating the public and enforcing proper road use. Because of the overwhelming response from more than 240 cities across the Nation, USDOT extended the challenge for 6 months to enable even more cities to become involved. The challenge will conclude in September 2016.

For more information on the Mayors’ Challenge, visit, or see “Leading the Charge for Safer Streets” in the May/June2016 issue of PUBLIC ROADS.

Technical Assistance Pilots

USDOT is committed to providing technical support and guidance through the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot (LadderSTEP). The pilot program provides technical assistance to seven cities--Atlanta,GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge,LA; Charlotte, NC; Indianapolis, IN; Phoenix, AZ; and Richmond,VA--to help advance their sustainable economic development and thought-ful planning around a major transportation project.

In March 2015, USDOT convened the mayors of each pilot city to identify opportunities for revitalization and to develop workplans for implementation. Focus areas and projects include transit-oriented and mixed-use development, improved accessibility for pedestrians and bicycles, and construction of light rail and bus rapid transit systems. The LadderSTEP program also connects pilot cities with national organizations that aid in providing tools, strategies, capacity building, and investment resources.

USDOT will continue to work with the cities’ mayors to support the implementation of each pilot workplan through regional resource teams, which include national resource groups, Federal agency partners, and local stakeholders. In addition, USDOT will develop a report to highlight best practices, reflect on lessons learned, and identify future barriers and opportunities.

FHWA Activities

The Federal Highway Administration is committed to playing a leading role in ensuring that the Nation’s transportation system provides pathways to opportunity. In support of Ladders of Opportunity, FHWA has placed strong emphasis on expanding knowledge and providing technical assistance, not only within the agency, but also for external stakeholders and partners.

FHWA’s Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty and Office of Civil Rights are championing many activities and products that support the goals of Ladders of Opportunity, from planning guidebooks and webinars on environmental justice to a strategic agenda for pedestrian and bicycle transportation and livability tools.

“We are more than a highway agency,” says Federal Highway Administrator Gregory Nadeau. “By linking families to schools, to jobs, and to each other, we are building ladders of opportunity for communities nationwide. Communities depend on the quality of life afforded by U.S. roads and bridges and FHWA’s culture of innovation.”

Continuing the Legacy

Although USDOT activities have made strides in advancing the goals of Ladders of Opportunity, more work remains to institutionalize the overarching concept of connectivity and accessibility for all users.

Reconnecting West Baltimore
A pedestrian walks past abandoned and boarded-up buildings in West Baltimore. The West Baltimore MARC Station Area Redevelopment Strategy calls for improved pedestrian facilities and public spaces to encourage redevelopment and economic investment in the community.


The West Baltimore MARC Station Area (highlighted in blue) was selected as the focus area for the Reconnecting West Baltimore project.


In the early 1970s, many historic African-American communities in West Baltimore were torn apart and divided by the former I–70, now U.S. 40. Twenty city blocks were leveled, and 971 homes, 62 businesses, and one school were demolished, leaving more than 1,500 people displaced. However, the highway was never fully constructed, leading local residents to dub it the “Highway to Nowhere.”

For more than a decade, the City of Baltimore worked to reconnect the communities of West Baltimore and restore trust with residents through a new light rail line. The proposed 14.1-mile (22.7-kilometer) east-west Red Line would enhance mobility, provide access to major employment centers, and support community revitalization by attracting transit-oriented development. However, funding for the Red Line was canceled after a change in State administration.

The vision of connectivity and development for the West Baltimore area is still achievable. The City of Baltimore’s West Baltimore MARC Station Area Redevelopment Strategy calls for improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in the surrounding area to increase connectivity and prime the area for future development.

In March 2015, USDOT selected Baltimore as a LadderSTEP pilot city. As part of the pilot, USDOT and the City of Baltimore convened local stakeholders, Federal agency partners, and national resource groups to discuss gaps and develop a workplan for action. The group selected the West Baltimore MARC Station Area with the specific goal of reducing the number of travel lanes on the Fulton Avenue Bridge over U.S. 40 from five to three, creating a safe and inviting buffer for pedestrians and bicyclists and incorporating the bridge into the West Baltimore pedestrian and bicyclenetwork.

The City of Baltimore is working with the FHWA Maryland Division, the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, and the Maryland Department of Transportation. FHWA has provided technical assistance and support for the project. In October 2015, FHWA agreed to allow the city to utilize Federal funds on the project and still comply with the city’s local hiring standards, which incentivizes 51 percent of the new hires for the project to be filled by Baltimore city residents. This further supports Ladders of Opportunity by increasing employment and economic mobility opportunities for local residents. On April 28, 2016, the City of Baltimore broke ground on the Fulton Avenue Bridgeimprovements.

Although much work remains to reconnect West Baltimore with the downtown area, the LadderSTEP pilot has already helped create a better atmosphere of collaboration and transform perceptions of transportation. Both USDOT and the City of Baltimore are looking to continue efforts to revitalize West Baltimore.

“Being a LadderSTEP city has been beneficial in that the City of Baltimore has been able to peel back the layers of government and show firsthand some of the most severe transportation challenges we have faced for decades,” says Colby McFarland, project manager with the City of Baltimore. “[It has had] positive impacts on our communities, while building a strong partnership to make a concerted effort to leverage resources and bring about change in neighborhoods that need it the most.”

For more information, visit

In 2015, the White House Office of Management and Budget formed a Community Solutions Taskforce charged with institutionalizing place-based initiatives, such as the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), through enhanced technical assistance and interagency coordination. The PSC is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, USDOT, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It works to improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment. The PSC also is committed to using agency resources to advance economic opportunity and mobility for every community through Ladders of Opportunity.

The partnership is developing key themes for the End of Administration Report, which will provide insight on how to use interagency partnerships most effectively to support the development of sustainable and livable communities. Likewise, the Community Solutions Taskforce is developing a regional interagency memorandum of agreement that creates an official framework for improving the Federal Government’s ability to collaborate across agencies in support of local community efforts.

Within USDOT, the 12 futures groups of the Policy Council, which are advisory groups, are supporting Secretary Foxx and Administrator Nadeau’s efforts to institutionalize Ladders of Opportunity through an opportunities agenda. The goal of the agenda is to empower community engagement, integrate best practices, and sharpen enforcement of opportunity-enhancing regulations.

In particular, the Planning, Environment, and Realty Futures Group is leading a new effort to connect communities. The work group submitted a proposal for the implementation of a community benefits analysis, which will provide resources to FHWA’s division office staff as they work with their stakeholders to help reconnect communities that have been separated by transportation infrastructure. A flowchart and reference list resulting from the community benefits analysis will help stakeholders identify, consider, and evaluate the benefits of a transportation action on a community and its members’ quality of life. The work group will continue to provide periodic updates to the Policy Council on progress and implementation efforts.

FHWA Products and Activities Supporting Ladders of Opportunity


The Transportation Planning Process Briefing Book provides guidance for decisionmakers considering transportation equity and analyzing connectivity.
  • Fiscal years 2015 and 2016 planning emphasis area: Ladders of Opportunity. FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) encourage State departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to give priority to identifying and mitigating transportation connectivity gaps in accessing essentialservices.
  • Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decisionmaking (FHWA-HEP-15-044). FHWA designed this guidebook to help transportation officials assist the public, particularly disadvantaged populations, with understanding how transportation decisions are made at each level of government and how best to take advantage of opportunities to influence decisions.
  • The Transportation Planning Process Briefing Book: Key Issues for Transportation Decisionmakers, Officials, and Staff (FHWA-HEP-15-048). This joint FHWA and FTA briefing book provides additional direction and guidance to local officials discussing transportation equity and analyzing connectivity.
  • Every Day Counts round 3 initiative: Regional Models of Cooperation. This initiative demonstrates the efficiencies and benefits of collaboration and coordination among planning jurisdictions, including conducting regional analysis of economically distressedcommunities.
  • Governors’ Institute on Community Design. This organization is producing a guide that outlines best practices from States and MPOs that have successfully employed performance measures relative to multimodal transportation networks, connectivity to essential services, and livability. The guide is part of an interagency agreement between FHWA and the Governors’ Institute on Community Design. The guide is expected to be available in late2016.
  • Assessment of connectors to National Highway System passenger intermodal terminals. This research examines the mobility and accessibility aspects of the National Highway System and how the intermodal connectors link underserved populations to economicopportunity.
  • Tools and Practices for Land Use Integration: Roadway Design Guidelines and Standards. This resource provides examples of ways that planners and designers can use design guidelines and standards to ensure that transportation infrastructure is appropriate to the adjacent land use context and promotes accessibility and connectivity for allusers.

Environmental Justice and Title VI

  • Environmental Justice (EJ) and Title VI: The Power of Good Data and Analysis webinars. This two-part webinar series provides information, tools, and best practices for conducting effective EJ and Title VI data collection and analysis to inform equitable transportation decisionmaking.
  • Performance measures for Title VI ADA/Section 504 requirements. The Office of Civil Rights has set a target for 48 States to have approved Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) transition plans that include public rights-of-way by the end of fiscal year 2018. ADA transition plans encourage transportation design and policies that improve multimodal access for individuals withdisabilities.

Pedestrian and Bicycle

  • Strategic Agenda for Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation. This report will include a technical memorandum that identifies ways FHWA can support the Ladders of Opportunity initiative through investments, policies, and programs that advance pedestrian and bicycle transportation. The report is expected to be available in summer 2016.
  • Handbook for Metropolitan Planning Organization Pedestrian and Bicycle Planning. MPOs will be able to use this handbook to plan for safe, integrated, and connected pedestrian and bicycle networks. The handbook includes examples from MPOs that are incorporating equity into their planning and programming process. The guide is expected to be available in late summer 2016.
  • Bicycle-Pedestrian Count Technology Pilot Project. This pilot deployed automated pedestrian and bicycle counting equipment in 10MPOs that do not currently have programs for monitoring nonmotorized travel. Data collected will assist transportation agencies in providing more effective pedestrian and bicycle facilities and in improving safety.
  • Statewide Pedestrian and Bicycle Planning Handbook (FHWA-HEP-14-051). This handbook is designed to help State DOTs develop or update State pedestrian and bicycle plans. For each stage of the planning process, this handbook uses recent experiences and noteworthy practices from DOTs around the country, helping inform a new generation of statewide nonmotorized planning andimplementation.
  • Guidebook for Developing Pedestrian & Bicycle Performance Measures (FHWA-HEP-16-037). This guidebook is intended to help communities develop performance measures that can fully integrate pedestrian and bicycle planning in ongoing performance management activities. It features a performance measures toolbox that includes measures related to access, connectivity, job creation, network completeness, and more.

Livability Tools

Using this tool, transportation practitioners can search for accessibility performance measures for various geographies, densities, and transportation modes.

In addition, the Ladders of Opportunity implementation work groups, recently created in response to the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, aim to ensure that connectivity principles are integrated into USDOT’s policies and procedures. For example, one FAST Act implementation activity includes incorporating Ladders of Opportunity elements, such as access to opportunity, multimodal connections, and assistive technologies for those with disabilities, into the topic areas for the competitive grant program of the University Transportation Centers.

Looking Ahead


Over the next 6 months, USDOT and FHWA will undertake several activities to institutionalize Ladders of Opportunity. At TRB 2016, Secretary Foxx announced a national challenge around reconnecting communities. The Every Place Counts Design Challenge brings together mayors and tribal leaders, working with designers, architects, and engineering and planning experts, to compete for technical assistance with innovative solutions to reconnect communities to essential services. Challenge finalists are holding “community vision” design sessions, hosted by design experts in the field, in their cities in July 2016. For more information, visit

Similarly, FHWA is adding a new criterion to the 2017 Environmental Excellence Awards under the Community Considerations in Trans-portation Improvements category. This criterion recognizes projects or processes that identify and offer solutions to improve access to opportunities in communities disconnected by previous transportation projects.

The agency also is proposing a Ladders of Opportunity initiative under the fourth round of Every Day Counts, which will provide technical assistance and peer exchanges on improving connectivity and community benefits where States are working to remove or retrofit transportation infrastructure that historically created barriers to opportunities.

Lastly, FHWA is working with State and MPO partners, stakeholders, and the other modal administrations to encourage the evolution of flexible street designs that are safer and more accessible for all users. A new guide, Achieving Multimodal Networks: Applying Design Flexibility and Reducing Conflicts, will highlight several examples and best practices.

Through efforts such as these, transportation will continue to build enduring ladders of opportunity. “[The] connections between transportation and opportunity are many,” says Secretary Foxx, “and this Department is actively pursuing ways to take those connections and help communities--wealthy and poor, rural andurban--make the most of them.”

Danielle Coles is a community planner in FHWA’s Florida Division Office. While in FHWA’s Professional Development Program, she was sponsored by the Michigan Division Office, and completed assignments at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Michigan Department of Transportation, and the Office of Human Environment at FHWA. Coles received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia.

For more information, see or contact Danielle Coles at 850–553–2221 or