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Pennsylvania Transportation Chief Forges New Solutions for Old Infrastructure Problems

Not everyone is eager to embrace change and innovation, as Leslie Richards discovered working for the state, but that doesn't discourage her from innovating in the public sector.

by Jason Laughlin, The Philadelphia Inquirer / April 19, 2016
Penn. Department of Transportation Secretary Leslie S. Richards Instagram/PennsylvaniaDOT

(TNS) -- Bring up self-driving cars and Pennsylvania's transportation secretary gets enthusiastic.

Leslie Richards is just as excited about using apps to understand traffic, installing smart signs to shrink gridlock, or getting rid of registration stickers.

In a state where ancient infrastructure and dense development can make big transportation projects impossible, Richards likes thinking about high-tech solutions to old problems.

"In some ways we're forced to really look at technology," she said, "but I welcome that."

Interviewed in Harrisburg and Philadelphia last month, Richards, 48, a Democrat, reflected on her first year leading an agency of almost 12,000 employees. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation manages 40,000 miles of roads and 25,000 bridges and oversees rail, ports, freight, and aviation. Richards' approach embraces not just technology, but diversity - she is the state's first female transportation head in a field largely populated by men.

Richards recalled joking at a meeting, "You didn't have to ask all the females to leave before I got here."

Harrisburg, of course, has its own creaky political infrastructure, and it has given Richards her share of challenges. Not everyone is as eager to embrace change and innovation, as Richards discovered when she pushed to replace registration stickers with scanners that read license plates for information about vehicle records.

Some opponents say she wants too much, too soon.

"I have a lot of respect for the lady," said State Rep. Dom Costa (D., Allegheny), who opposes her on registration stickers. "She needs to start listening to others."

She's also facing fights with the legislature that prompted some to say she relies heavily on her PennDot staff without seeing the bigger picture.

Modernizing is the big picture, Richards said.

"I am focused on innovation, efficiencies, and better customer service," she said. "That is the big picture I and my staff are committed to."

If it's a matter of learning the ropes in Harrisburg, Richards should prove a quick study. She holds degrees in economics, urban studies, and regional planning from Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, and worked as a senior project manager at a female-owned civil engineering firm before becoming a Whitemarsh Township supervisor in 2007.

Through most of her education, she said, she was one of the few women in math and science courses. That wasn't why she stood out, though, said Dana Tomlin, a Penn professor of city and regional planning who taught Richards when she was a master's student in the 1990s.

"A student who is strong in her work," he remembered, "lets her work speak for her and . . . doesn't feel inclined to promote herself."

Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager, worked with Richards when she was on the transit agency's board, and described her as forthright.

"She is direct," Knueppel said. "She is very honest. You'll know how she feels about something."

And she's eager to discuss her feelings about updating infrastructure. She got attention last year for proposing to open the shoulders of the Schuylkill Expressway to traffic, but another idea that got less attention was adding smart signs that would update motorists on how they could divert to nearby train stops and use transit for the rest of their ride. She wants to get the state working with universities to look at the possibilities for autonomous cars, as well.

Richards, a former Montgomery County commissioner, was appointed to her post by Gov. Wolf in 2015 but still lives in Whitemarsh. She has two daughters in high school there, and her husband works for a Philadelphia law firm. She also has a son in college. She leaves for work about 8 o'clock every morning and listens to such artists as Tom Petty on Sirius radio during the two-hour drive in her Chevrolet Equinox.

She's comfortable on the road, she said, and one of her priorities as secretary has been to visit every part of the state.

"I'd much rather be out there getting dirty than be sitting here at my desk," she said.

Less enjoyable is sparring with the legislature.

"I came from a political world so I really did expect it," she said. "I guess I didn't expect the complexity that comes along with so many legislators representing so many different pockets of constituents."

Eliminating registration stickers and replacing them with online registration by next year has been planned since 2013 and could save $3.1 million a year in printing and mailing costs, she said.

Opponents such as Costa say police departments can't afford the technology to scan license plates without stickers and are supporting a bill to block that change that recently passed committee. Municipalities, EMS squads, and courts depend on about $15 million a year in revenue from fines and fees. Costa is also concerned that data gathered by license-plate scanners might become public.

"You need to back off sometimes," he said. "It's time to say, wait a minute, let's rethink this, or go in another direction."

Other states have already made the change and aren't losing revenue, Richards said, and scanners can issue more than 500 times as many registration violations per day as an officer on patrol. Richards has also offered a $12.5 million grant to help buy departments license-plate scanners.

"It's just moving us backward," Richards said of the bill to keep stickers.

Richards is looking ahead to another fight that puts her at odds with law enforcement. She's resisting a legislative habit of pulling money from transportation to fill the state police budget. It's expected to take $755 million next year.

Richards wants that money for its original purpose, capital projects and maintenance, and has proposed caps to restore billions of dollars for transportation in the coming years. She has also proposed asking towns that opt to use state police as their sole law enforcement to pay for that service.

It's an inconvenient coincidence, she said, that her stands on the stickers and transportation funding both affect revenue for law enforcement.

"Going against law enforcement is tough, even though I think it's just a perception in that issue," she said.

Bucking a system isn't likely to faze Richards. Every working day, she walks past the portraits of the previous 24 transportation secretaries outside her office. They're all men. And she winces at the percentage of women working for PennDot. It's been trending upward, and is now at 18 percent.

"We've made some strides, but they're very small and I think we really need to pick it up a notch, to say it in no other simpler terms," she said.

She tries to visit women in college engineering and science programs. She's looking for women to fill entry-level positions at PennDot, but she also wants young women to meet her and talk to her about her experiences.

"I'm a big believer," she said, "in 'you have to see it to be it.' "

©2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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