The PennDOT and IUP Partnership: A Personal History – In Six Parts

Part I

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cultural resources partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).  The partnership has served both agencies and over the years have provided staffing to PennDOT, helped move legacy archaeological collections toward curation, hosted conferences, launched and sustained a publication series, trained a generation of students in cultural resources management, and otherwise served as an exemplar to all state agencies in how they can play well together for mutual benefit.  This is that story, as I see it.  Please join me over the next several weeks.

The Bad Old Days

In 1993, I joined PennDOT after a brief career managing the archaeology program at the Maryland State Highway Administration.  I joined a small cultural resources unit in the newly formed Bureau of Environmental Quality, my coworkers being Deborah Suciu Smith, Chris Kula, and Dick Weeden.  The Bureau was led by Wayne Kober, who had formed it only a few years earlier.  In 1993, District 4-0 (based out of Dunmore, near Wilkes-Barre) also hired an archaeologist, Jamie McIntyre.  Chris, Jamie, and I were hired as Museum Curators, Archaeologist II, under the State Civil Service Classification.  In my 26 years at PennDOT, I never did see a PennDOT museum, nor did I every curate any collection other than pencils and compact discs. Go figure.  For a brief period, from 1993 until June, 1994, we worked in the old Transportation and Safety Building on the site where the current Keystone Building resides.  After the 1994 fire, we were temporarily housed then returned to the T&S building, until it was found unfit for habitation. We then operated out of a converted parking garage at Forum Place for about 4 years until in 2000 we moved into the Keystone facility.

When I joined BEQ, the National Historic Preservation Act was 27 years old and PennDOT had been conducting archaeological studies for about half as long.  The Bureau for Historic Preservation, i.e., the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), was housed in the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and was led by Brenda Barrett.  We were aware of the Federal Highway Administration, but in those days, FHWA was relatively disengaged with the day to day activities of the environmental unit.  Our day to day activities were of one of two flavors.  For smaller projects, PennDOT submitted a Preliminary Cultural Resource Review Form (PCRRF) to the SHPO for their sign-off.  Usually, the PCRRF was stapled to a 10 to 30-page report describing the project and potential non-effects the project would have on historic resources.  Our job was to conduct a quality control check on the package and shepherd it across the plaza to the State Museum, in which the SHPO offices were housed.  The second task we had was to manage report reviews of historic resource studies.  PennDOT project managers whose projects were likely to affect historic resources had the design consultant and their subconsultants prepare any necessary studies, i.e., historic resource surveys, criteria of effect reports, Phase I and II archaeological surveys, etc.  As these studies came into BEQ, they were assigned to one of a pool of management consultants who actually reviewed the reports and determined whether they were sufficient to hand off to the SHPO for their approval and sign-off.  Our job was to manage the management consultants and act as intermediaries between the management consultants and the engineers in the Highway Quality Assurance Division, who would draft and send the cover letters to the SHPO.  Given the pace of activities and the rate at which reports came into BEQ, it was a rare event when one of us would actually read the reports being sent over.  Most of the time we conducted the quality control on the comments prepared by the management consultants.  Even as I remember this process and write about it here, I must assure the reader that what I have presented was an oversimplification of the process, having left several intermediate steps out.

By mutual agreement between BEQ and SHPO, the deadline for approval or comment on the submitted reports was 60 days, so a third task we had was to track review times religiously.  PCRRFs was an expedited process, whereby a submission would return a response in 10 days.  On average, the review times were around or just under 60 days, but as much as a third of the reports were reviewed in more than 60 days.  Large reports such as data recovery reports might take up to 6 months for a review, although that generally wasn’t a problem as we had usually received a conditional letter of approval based on an executive summary and a field visit, so the project could proceed into final design.  This being before 1999, archaeological impacts were treated as not adverse if there was a data recovery, so no agreement documents were required to finish NEPA and get to final design.  PCRRFs were usually returned in 10 days; however, a more than insignificant proportion of them required resubmission due to incomplete information, so the Section 106 review for even minor projects could take several months.

In some ways, tracking reports was simple.  It came into BEQ and was stamped in with a  date.  When it was taken over to SHPO, it was stamped in with a  date.  And when it was returned to BEQ with approval or comment, it was stamped with a date. Each document was tracked on a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and we had a management consultant whose only responsibility was to track the coming and going of reports.  The only problems with the system as designed was that reports were lost being mailed or shipped from the District offices to BEQ, reports were lost at SHPO, and there were frequent arguments over reports that were stamped in on a Friday afternoon or a day before a holiday.  This being the land of engineers, every day was counted and tracked.

Jamie was hired by the Engineering District and did not report to BEQ.  Her duties were largely archaeological, conducting studies and managing the archaeological contracts carried out under the Prime consultants for various PennDOT projects.  Although we coordinated on issues and policy, she and the District operated largely independently from Central Office, which was the general rule in PennDOT.  PennDOT was and remains a largely decentralized organization.

Pivoting

While our routine in the early 1990’s more resembled paper pushers than archaeologists or cultural resources managers, two initiatives were afoot that would change that.  First was the development in Pennsylvania for a Programmatic Agreement (PA) to cover Section 106 activities for FHWA/PennDOT.  Program-wide programmatic agreements had become popular in the late 1980’s as a tool to gain efficiencies on coordination with the SHPO and to provide predictability to agency programs.  At the time the gold standard was the Vermont VTRANS Programmatic Agreement that delegated a lot of responsibility to professionals working for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.  This was a far-ranging agreement that carried a lot of weight and was the envy of the transportation profession.  Every DOT wanted one, but the problem was that Vermont was and is considered a “toy state” with a minuscule program and a very strong preservation ethic amongst it citizens.  PennDOT was the 5th largest transportation program in the country, and it was unclear whether a Vermont-flavored PA could be executed here.

Apparently, it could.  On December 11, 1996 a statewide programmatic agreement covering “minor” transportation projects was executed between FHWA, PennDOT, and the SHPO.  It was limited insofar as it did not cover projects with adverse effects and was limited to categorical exclusion level projects under NEPA.  Still, it represented a leap forward and covered a large share of the program.  The key features in this PA were:

  1. It established a class of activities that could be excluded from further Section 106 consultation by the nature of the activity.  They were small enough to be exempted.
  2. It created a class of PennDOT staff who could make exemptions under the PA, but who weren’t historic preservation specialists.  The class required training and oversight, but were delegated to make exemptions, as District Designees.
  3. It put the responsibility for making findings of eligibility and effect squarely back on to the agency, with PennDOT acting as surrogate for FHWA.  This is what the law intended and now it was going to be the responsibility of PennDOT to own the program and not shrug its shoulders, hand the decision to the SHPO, and then get angry.
  4. Finally, it created a class of historic preservation professional that were delegated to make findings of eligibility and effect on behalf of PennDOT and FHWA.  These Qualified Professionals (QP’s, or kewpies, as sometimes noted) were not SHPO staff, but PennDOT staff and its consultants.

Concurrent with the development of the PA (which actually took three years between proposal and execution) was the evolution of thinking regarding how and where these QPs would be used once a PA was in place.  Ultimately, the line of thinking resulted in a district-based team concept, with an archaeologist and architectural historian being placed in neighboring Engineering Districts and working together as a team closely with the design team and the environmental unit in the District. 

Getting from status quo to District-based teams was not a straight line by any means, but I would like to try to recreate path we followed.  As noted above, a central premise of the PA was that PennDOT would be providing qualified professionals to implement the Agreement, making findings of eligibility and effect.  First question: should these QPs be Department hires, consultants, or something else?  Second question: where should they be based?  Third question: to whom should they report?

As the PA was moving forward and toward signature and execution, PennDOT had to make decisions on how to implement, i.e., staff the Agreement.  In 1996, available Department staff included myself, Chris Kula, and Jamie McIntyre.  We were used to working with management consultants for the previous three years and knew their capabilities, and there was no way that the three of us could cover the Department, not including the fact that none of us were architectural historians.  As a matter of practicality, we would be relying heavily on consultants to augment Department staff.

The initial iteration on implementation paired an archaeologist and an architectural historian with each District.  Archeologists Jamie McIntyre, Chris Kula, Barb (Gudel) Shaffer, and Rod Brown were matched up with Jerry Clouse and Sue Peters on the above-ground side. Our management consultants were tasked with finding a third architectural historian, but through 1996, had been unable to do so.  By November 1996, three teams had been established to cover 11 engineering Districts, with an expectation that the third architectural historian would be provided by our management consultants.  At this point, other than Jamie McIntyre working out of District 4-0, there was no expectation that any of the teams would be District-based, as all of the QPs other than Jamie were coming out of Harrisburg.  Later on, District 6-0 (King of Prussia, near Philadelphia) hired Catherine Spohn in 1997 to serve as their archaeologist for projects in District 6-0.  In 1998, BEQ hired David Anthony to be based in Pittsburgh and be a staff architectural historian that would service the western Engineering Districts.  However, in 1996 and 1997, the PA was implemented largely with Harrisburg staff. 

Operationally, it wasn’t elegant.  PennDOT was a decentralized agency, with environmental review, design, and project delivery coming from each Engineering District.  Although BEQ was its own Bureau and reported directly to the Chief Engineer, each Engineering District was autonomous and also reported to the Chief Engineer, so that BEQ had no direct authority over the Environmental Managers or Project Managers in any District.  Our teams did review technical reports produced by consultants and submitted by the Districts to Central Office for coordination with the SHPO.  So at the beginning, the teams were intermediary between the project managers and the SHPO.  One implicit premise of the PA was that cultural resources expertise would be provided at the start of the project, which was the scoping field view.  To the degree possible, the teams travelled to each Engineering District to participate in these scoping field views and to provide input on what types of studies were needed going forward in design.  Initially this did not work well, as Project Managers were accustomed to establishing the scopes of work and handing the cultural resources off to the prime or sub consultant for completion.  More often than not, that meant cultural resources consultants were handed a soup-to-nuts list of studies to complete, with the assumption that a scattershot approach would not bog down the process.  It also meant that the cultural resources teams often were handed completed reports for work that in their opinions were not needed.  This created more than a little conflict.

As a consequence of the creation of the cultural resources teams, gradually Environmental Managers and Project Managers began to rely on their expertise, particularly when they were able to expedite the project by getting to an effect finding more quickly.  Gradually, the quality of reports submitted to the SHPO for comment improved as well, reducing the number of resubmissions due to extensive comments.  Clearly, BEQ professional staff were beginning to gain hold of the process and to actually fulfill the terms of the PA, moving from paper pushers to adding value.  Given that most of the QPs were based in BEQ and worked closely together, it was also possible to effect training and changes in policy or procedure very quickly, which is a distinct advantage of having a closely working unit.  And in addition to the QPs, the ability for trained District Designees to exempt projects based on the types of activities, also reduced the overall workload.  Those Stipulation C exemptions (made under the PA) largely took over the role that PCRRFs had accomplished only a year before, but with much less paperwork and much more accuracy.

Next: Part II – Business Process Re-Engineering and the District-Based Teams

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