Leslie S. Richards is a woman in motion.
Appointed in 2015 by Gov. Tom Wolf as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, she is the first woman to hold the post. Richards also is an urban planner at the head of an agency that has typically been led by engineers or attorneys.
In less than two years on the job, Richards has made headlines for her efforts to better incorporate modern technology into customer service and project management — the public for the first time this winter can track all 2,200 PennDOT plow trucks online, for example, while the agency’s use of a mobile app to reduce construction inspectors’ reliance on bulky, printed project documents is leading to millions of dollars in cost-savings.
Richards also has taken a systematic approach to prioritizing spending through metric-driven analysis, as well as working with local governments and stakeholders to better incorporate their views into project planning. These efforts are critical as PennDOT continues to attack a longstanding backlog of overdue maintenance on bridges and other infrastructure. Funding that work has been aided by the use of “public-private” partnerships, also known as P3s, which were authorized under a 2012 law.
At the same time, she is guiding the department as it works with lawmakers and academics to prepare for the brave new world of autonomous vehicles, and she remains an advocate of better rail transportation.
Richards’ efforts to streamline the department recently won her two honors under the international Stevie Awards for women in business.
We spoke with her in late November, the day after news emerged that President-elect Donald Trump had selected Elaine Chao to be the nation’s transportation secretary.
Q: If you were to sit down with the future U.S. Secretary of Transportation, what would you tell her are the most pressing needs for Pennsylvania?
A: I would tell her that we definitely need help maintaining our interstates — I-95, I-83 in this area, I-81, are major freight corridors.
We would love to see investment in rail. Whenever I go abroad, it’s obvious to me how far behind we are and what the opportunities are here. The fact right now that it takes five-and-a-half hours to get from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg on a train is ridiculous. And so, if we could have some federal support with those types of initiatives, I really feel that rail could get us to that next leap forward both with our economic objectives and our transportation objectives.
Since you’ve taken the job, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve seen?
It’s our asset management. We have the (nation’s) fifth-largest responsibility in terms of miles of road. We have the third-largest bridge responsibility. And so just up until last year, we were No. 1 for the most structurally deficient bridges. We’re now No. 2, which is an improvement.
About Leslie S. Richards
Lives: Montgomery County
Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics and urban studies, Brown University; master’s of regional planning, University of Pennsylvania
Previous careers: Project manager and consultant in engineering and construction, Montgomery County Commissioner
Advice to women considering political careers: “The only way to guarantee you don’t have a voice is not to run. Someone is going to be making those decisions, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be you.”
It’s about the age of our network — everything needs TLC at the same time. There has not been enough money to properly maintain all of our assets, and so we’re seeing the deterioration all at once. We still really have to prioritize how we take care of everything. It’s a huge challenge. For the first time — and it’s one of the things I’m proudest of — we’ve put together a metric-driven investment plan, which allows us to track how we’re investing our money. That is really helping us get that structurally deficient bridge list down as far as we can.
You have an urban planning background. Tell me about how that background prepared you for this role.
It has really given me a unique perspective, and it’s what’s behind this new investment plan. I really am taking the larger view of things, and don’t get bogged down in the specific details of one specific project.
We’re also taking a look at how we do all projects, and how we use that planning perspective early on to make sure we are keeping within our cost estimates and delivering our projects on time.
We’re making sure that every single project now, through our “PennDOT Connects” initiative, is taking a look at our host communities and collaborating with them in a new way. We’re taking a look at the future goals of the community, and how our asset — whether it’s a bridge, whether it’s a roadway — plays a part in their vision for what they want for their community, and what it means for their quality of life. So we’re taking a look at their transit connections, their freight connections, where they want economic development to grow now and in the future; where their bike and pedestrian paths need to be, where they want them to be; and making sure that we fit our project development and design into their vision.
You are the first woman to lead this agency. How important is diversity in hiring to you?
It’s been mentioned that I’m the first female. While I am very proud of that, it took a very long time in Pennsylvania for that to happen. In the (transportation) industry in general, we definitely need more diversity. All of the studies show that the more diverse minds that you have around a table, the better decision options that you have, and who wouldn’t want that? We see it in business, where it helps your bottom line. We see it in educational institutions, where it helps you retain good faculty, it helps you bring in more interesting academic disciplines. It’s something that we feel will make this DOT and all DOTs better.
I work very closely with FHWA (the Federal Highway Administration), and in Pennsylvania it’s also led by a woman, Renee Sigel. We both have a planning background, as well. The fact that we are leaders in autonomous vehicles, in using new technologies, and we’re both using metric-driven funding formulas in ways that haven’t been used before, I don’t think that is a random occurrence.<