Making an impact: Improving quality of life through transportation

10/22/2022 McCall Macomber

How can we ensure transportation projects improve quality of life in communities?

Illinois Center for Transportation and Illinois Department of Transportation seek to answer this question in their joint project, “R27-222: Evaluating IDOT’s Community Impact Assessment Manual to Determine Socioeconomic Impacts of Projects.”

Jesus Barajas, University of California, Davis assistant professor, and Lindsay Braun, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign assistant professor, lead the project with John Sherrill, IDOT project coordination.

They turn to community impact assessment — an approach used to evaluate the effects of transportation projects on communities, such as on their health, safety, air quality, connectivity and access, and equity.

“Most transportation projects are managed by engineers, and they know very well the technical aspects of a project, but they may not really understand the impacts to people,” Sherrill said. “At a project level, we need to know what that means.”

The researchers aim to understand how transportation agencies use community impact assessment and how transportation projects and planning affect people, particularly those with structural disadvantages.

“This project was a good way to see what the state of practice is for community impact assessment and its connections to environmental justice and equity and really help IDOT move forward on the most advanced thinking on how to apply community impact assessment methods to their work,” Barajas said.

They reviewed documents from six states with publicly available guidance on community impact assessment — California, Florida, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Texas.

They also surveyed 10 transportation agencies on their community impact assessment practices, six of which they interviewed in-depth.

“We found there’s no consistency in what state DOTs are doing,” Sherrill said. “There’s a lot of talk, but there’s not a lot of walk.”

Barajas hopes their work can influence other transportation agencies to “investigate their own practices and to figure out methods forward for them.”

Key to the project is a guidance document the researchers crafted for IDOT and a supplementary tool.

The tool, which shows communities’ quantitative and qualitative characteristics, helps community impact analysts determine what level of assessment is needed in a proposed project area.

It allows users to select a desired area, output population characteristics based on census data and compare the characteristics to the county or counties in which the project is located.

“You can get a sense of whether there are significant structural disadvantages in the project area,” Barajas said. “If there are, that is an indication that you might have to go more in depth into the community impact assessment then you might have otherwise.”

Barajas notes the widely available tool is “simple to use and understand” in the hopes that communities who may be affected by transportation projects will adopt the technology to advocate for their own needs.

IDOT is already putting the tool to use, according to Sherrill.

“Transportation engineers will be much more effective communicating and interacting with the community because of this tool,” Sherrill said. “IDOT will start conducting community impact assessments on a much greater volume and variety of projects then what we have historically been doing.”