Joan McDonald
New York State Department of Transportation

City & State: A report from the American Society of Civil Engineers last year gave a poor but slightly improved grade to the U.S. for the condition of its infrastructure, citing increased efforts at the state and local level. Is New York picking up the slack for the federal government?
Joan McDonald: One of our largest issues is that federal transportation aid to New York has been essentially flat since 2009. This puts a strain on resources, as needs are ever increasing. We’ve attacked this with a preservation-first strategy, which focuses the majority of resources on preserving our infrastructure in good condition, and makes construction of new highways a lesser priority. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also invested more than $1.2 billion in transportation improvements through his NY Works program. As a result of that investment, we’ve repaired or replaced more than 120 bridges, and paved more than 2,100 miles of roadways statewide.

C&S: New York has the highest gas tax of any state, at 50.6 cents per gallon. Is that sufficient?
JM: The Department’s main funding issue is with federal aid, which constitutes 70 percent of our capital program funding. Continued uncertainty regarding federal transportation dollars makes it a challenge to engage in long-term planning.

C&S: What have you been hearing from residents and commuters about the planning to replace the aging Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse? When will more details on options and cost estimates be available?
JM: The Syracuse community has been very engaged in the I-81 debate—in June more than 400 people attended the most recent public meeting on the project, and we’ve received more than 1,200 responses. There are varying opinions on which alternative is preferred, but in general people want a transportation solution that is safe, efficient, better connects the community, improves on accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists, and closely aligns with the economic goals of the city and the region. As to the process, we are nearing completion of the first phase of the environmental review, called “scoping.” This phase allows the community to comment on the goals and objectives, and helps us identify the factors that need to be considered during creation of the Environmental Impact Statement. We’ve outlined 16 concepts for the viaduct replacement, and incorporated a handful of other ideas proposed by the public. By the end of this year we will narrow those concepts down to those that meet the purpose and need of the project, and our review of the public comments will assist in making that decision. The chosen concepts will then move forward to the next stage, during which we will perform detailed preliminary design work, which allows us to study the impacts of each alternative. Those preliminary designs and impacts will be detailed in the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

C&S: The state Thruway Authority is overseeing the project to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. What role is the Department of Transportation playing?
JM: At this point we do not have a direct role in construction. We assisted with creation of the Environmental Impact Statement. I co-chaired the Tappan Zee’s Mass Transit Task Force, which issued its final report in February.

C&S: What other key transportation projects are in the works?
JM: Our largest project ever is getting under way in New York City—the $555 million replacement of the Kosciuszko Bridge. The new bridge will be a major improvement and will help ease congestion in the I-278 corridor between Brooklyn and Queens. It’s also the second-largest project under the governor’s NY Works program. Resiliency is another major effort we are engaged in. We are working with the governor to secure federal funding to strengthen 105 bridges statewide that could be susceptible to damage from flooding. It’s part of the governor’s efforts to prepare for our “new normal” of frequent severe storms. The strengthening will include stronger bridge foundations that will resist “scour”—when fast-flowing water creates erosion around bridge piers.

C&S: Has New York’s design-build law helped reduce construction costs for transportation projects? Is the state still looking to pass more comprehensive public-private partnership legislation?
JM: Design-build is a tool that allows design and construction of a project to happen concurrently, which reduces a project’s timeline significantly from the traditional process, in which we would design the project and then put it out to bid to be constructed. We can accelerate schedules and reduce cost increase due to inflation. Design-build also allows us to tap into the creativity of our contractors, allowing them to be innovative in their designs and construction methods, which is where significant cost savings can be realized. We will have to see if the state decides to move forward with public-private partnerships—it’s an issue that needs to be worked out with the Legislature.

C&S: GPS mapping technology in cars and smartphones has become widespread. Does it help traffic flow more efficiently? Has DOT explored ways to utilize such technology?
JM: GPS can be helpful to motorists who are trying to find their way around congested routes. NYSDOT does use technology to aid drivers: Our 511NY service offers real-time traffic information, weather conditions, emergency information and access to our statewide network of traffic cameras statewide. 511NY can be accessed by dialing 511, by visiting the website at, or on smartphones via a downloadable app. 511NY is now undergoing a significant upgrade, including a hands-free option that will allow drivers to listen to live traffic reports along their route as they drive. NYSDOT also employs technology to estimate travel times, which are posted on electronic boards along the major commuting routes statewide. The technology gives drivers a sense of travel times and gives them the opportunity to adjust their route if there is major congestion.

One major technology initiative involves our efforts to keep trucks off downstate parkways. Trucks are banned from the parkways, which were designed for cars and have very low bridge heights. We’ve managed to reduce bridge hits by about 30 percent in the past couple of years by improving signage and using pavement markings to warn truckers. We have now developed systems which employ infrared sensors that can detect if a truck is entering a parkway. Once the threat is detected, the sensors trigger a large message board that warns the truck driver not to proceed, and to pull over and wait for police. The sensor also electronically sends a notification to police and our traffic management center as well. We have one system installed at an entrance to the Northern State Parkway in Long Island, and we’ll also be testing the systems along key entrance points to other parkways in Long Island, New York City and the Hudson Valley.

Another piece of technology we are testing on Long Island is a radar system that can sense a speeding car and change the timing of traffic lights along the corridor to slow drivers down.

C&S: In New York City, the de Blasio administration has prioritized its “Vision Zero” initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities. How effective is the state on this front?
JM: Safety of all roadway users is our No. 1 priority. We’ve changed our approach to safety by looking at system-driven solutions. When we address a specific issue, we study the larger transportation system to look at the impacts and design solutions. We did just that on Hempstead Turnpike on Long Island, to address accidents involving pedestrians. We looked at the entire 16-mile corridor in Nassau County, analyzed vehicle and pedestrian traffic and crash data, transit use, and pedestrian safety accommodations. The result was a number of upgrades that improved safety for motorists and pedestrians. There are three E’s for safety: engineering, education and enforcement. So another part of our effort was to engage police and the community at large to make sure laws are being enforced and that people understand: Safety is everyone’s responsibility. Drivers need to stay within speed limits and watch for pedestrians, and pedestrians need to use crosswalks and signals. These actions, combined with our engineering upgrades, make the road safer for everyone. It’s an approach that we’ve expanded to other parts of the state.