How are Cultural Resource professionals at state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) handling COVID-19? We conducted a survey to find out. As we were talking to different DOTs, we heard lots of interesting trends and information, so we wanted to compile and share information from multiple DOTs in order to start a dialogue. Overall, 31 states and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) responded.
We asked open-ended questions to encourage respondents to share as much information as possible.
Members of our Cultural Resource team presented the findings from this survey at the mid-year TRB AME60 (formerly ADC50) Cultural Resources committee meeting in July. We plan to do a follow-up survey in the future to gauge how things have evolved in the Fall and Spring. Below are the results and key take-aways.
Critical issue or greatest challenge
The most common response was funding, followed by internal coordination and communication, restrictions and limitations for site visits, and research, and coordination and communication with other agencies.
Electronic submittal systems
Almost 70% said the DOT or State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) had implemented an electronic submittal system for Section 106 compliance documentation because of the pandemic. Most reported that the electronic submission is successful.
Restrictions and limitations for site visits and research
Over half of the DOTs are not seeing any significant changes in research or field work. However, the other half responded that research or field survey projects are now limited to day trips, so they are not able to get to all parts of the state and are limited to one person per vehicle. 100% of DOTs said their agency is facing travel restrictions, and there is really no clear picture of when that will end.
This means projects are taking more time. The good news is that SHPOs have been flexible with accepting limited research; streamlined evaluations are being employed, and online resources are now critical sources of information and research.
Public involvement and project meetings
79% of the DOTs said that their approach to conducting public involvement and project meetings has shifted: most are being conducted virtually. Information is being shared online, but it is a challenge to run an effective virtual forum for comments—especially with a large number of participants.
Funding and possible stimulus infrastructure package
Almost 70% said that they were expecting a potential stimulus infrastructure package, but did not yet have any specific plan. So what are people doing to prepare? Respondents expect shelf or shovel-ready projects to move forward. One state completed a high-level review of wish list projects. Another state was getting staffing lined up with consultant contracts, and hiring temp staff. Others are looking for ways to streamline the process.
Shifting program priorities
55% said that they did not foresee having to shift program priorities in the near future, but it may be too soon to tell. Other DOTs responded that if there is a stimulus package, the focus could change to critical projects and smaller projects.
39% of DOTs predicted a reduction in current staffing, or hiring restrictions. A number of DOTs noted hiring freezes were in place or probable. However, some noted the freezes may or may not be due to COVID-19—the survey also found that for some DOTs, filling recent retirements also pose challenges.
When we face difficulties, the worst thing we can do is close off and operate in siloes. Ultimately, our goal in conducting this survey and sharing the results is to foster connection and knowledge transfer among Cultural Resource professionals working at DOTs. We look forward to working to address these challenges together.