Transport can build legacy of hope

Racial and social injustice has come to the fore this year. Samuel Johnson, IBTTA president and Transportation Corridor Agencies CEO, explains what the industry can do to build ‘a legacy of hope and progress’
November 30, 2020 3 mins Read
2020: ‘A uniquely difficult and painful year’ © Walter Arce
2020: ‘A uniquely difficult and painful year’ © Walter Arce

Out of a uniquely difficult and painful year for everyone around the globe – including the tolling community in the many jurisdictions in which it operates – the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) is building a legacy of hope and progress with the rapid formation of a task force to deal with diversity, racism and social inclusion issues both within the industry and in society.

IBTTA announced its Task Force on Diversity, Social and Racial Inclusion in late June, in a moment when the US and much of the world were reeling from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, and the countless number of human beings whose lives have been taken simply because of the color of their skin.

IBTTA acknowledged “that Black lives matter, and that those lives were lost to beliefs, behaviors and practices founded in ignorance and rooted in systemic racism throughout the US”.

At the time, IBTTA CEO Patrick Jones and myself said: “We are convinced that this moment calls for each of us to courageously align our words and deeds so that, in all we do, our words and our actions centre on human dignity, particularly for those to whom it has been denied.”

The statement pledged the new Task Force would “listen to the voices of those in our association and society who truly understand and recognize the depth of the inequity caused by racial and social injustice,” then “work to implement practices and programs that contribute to racial and social justice in our IBTTA family and beyond”.

Task Force co-chair Joi Dean, CEO of the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Virginia, reiterated how important it was for IBTTA, as an international, member-driven organization, to recognize, honor and support different member perspectives and viewpoints.

“The creation of this Task Force illuminates IBTTA’s commitment to world citizenship,” enabling members to “better learn from each other and engage in problem-solving methods with those from different lived experiences”, she said.

Moving swiftly

Less than half a year later, the Task Force has done a great job in getting the ball rolling fast. So here are three core activity areas where IBTTA plans to move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

  • The Task Force is building awareness and understanding of the everyday challenges people of color face in the US, hosting virtual discussion groups to share information on best practices to foster a culture of anti-racism and deliberately incorporating diversity in the full (and rapidly-growing) range of IBTTA conferences, workshops, and other online events.
  • The Task Force has begun highlighting the diversity of people and their accomplishments as well as efforts to promote diversity within IBTTA member organisations, both public and private. We have to recognize that there’s a ton of talent out there, and it isn’t always visible. We want to make sure we highlight those individuals and small businesses run by people of color and put them out there while acknowledging hurdles and disparities they face within the industry. We also want to recognize organisations that are making a difference through our Toll Excellence Awards program.
  • Another initiative involves building a talent pipeline for the next generation of industry leaders who are people of color, beginning with three new scholarships IBTTA introduced this year for students of color attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the US. Rosa Rountree, CEO of Egis Projects, stepped in to raise $15,000 toward three scholarships to be awarded in 2020.

As she says, IBTTA is an inclusive organization: “Extending our scholarship program to HBCUs will provide an unforgettable experience and an invaluable opportunity for students to expand their knowledge on how transportation infrastructure is funded.”

Ferzan M. Ahmed, P.E., executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission and co-chair of the Task Force adds: “I’m excited about the opportunities the scholarships will afford students attending HBCUs in pursuit of academic degrees that lead to rewarding careers in transportation.”

The vital thing is that the industry stands to gain so much more when it gives back through its diversity initiatives.

Starting with the end goal in mind, my feeling is that the best solutions and plans come from discussions that involve a diversity of thought, and that diversity of thought only comes from a diversity of perspective based on how we’re raised, what ethnic groups we’re a part of, our faith.

Those personal influences and experiences determine your perspective on certain aspects of life and bringing those diverse perspectives to the table is important if you want the best outcome.

Samuel Johnson, IBTTA
Samuel Johnson, IBTTA

Making sure we have a talent pipeline that puts people of color on a path to get to that table, so we can hear their perspectives and input and arrive at the best solutions, is critically important. I’m extremely proud of what we’re doing.

Creating partnerships

IBTTA has big plans, as transportation is an even bigger sector: we reached out to the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (Comto) to find common ground for action. As a result, we are instituting a three-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) that commits our two organisations to share event content, explore opportunities for joint programming, promote each other’s activities, and more. For IBTTA, the MOU is a way to maximize the tolling industry’s contribution to diversity across the wider industry.

“We believe that diversity moves the nation,” Comto states. “We believe that the leadership of a massive industry that has the responsibility of transporting all people all the time should reflect the complex mosaic of those they serve. We believe that commitment to inclusion across race, gender, age, religion, identity and experience moves us forward every day.”

IBTTA is working closely with tolling agencies with successful diversity initiatives already under way—like California’s Transportation Corridor Agencies, where I serve as CEO, and the North Texas Tollway Authority. The Task Force is also coordinating efforts with major industry vendors like WSP USA, where Jeffrey Heilstedt, senior vice president and national director of tolling services, recently laid out why his company is so committed to diversity—and how that engagement helps its business.

“Inclusion and diversity has been an integral part of our core values, and now more than ever we have renewed our pledge to keep these values at the forefront and remain committed to the promises we have made to be a consistent voice for inclusion and diversity,” Heilstedt told IBTTA’s Tolling Points blog in September. “Our aim is to be a leader in the industry, serving as an example of the strength that emanates from supporting equality for all.”

Heilstedt emphasized that WSP sees its minority partners “as a value-add to the industry, not just a check-box in the procurement documents. We bring in folks from our Disadvantaged Business Enterprise partners to work in the WSP office, where they can tackle complex technical issues side by side with our in-house teams, gain technical expertise, and see where they might want to learn and grow their businesses.”

Visible success

As IBTTA embarks on its diversity journey, I have a clear picture of what success over the next three to five years will look like.

Some visible measures of success within the industry would be more participation by people of color, and with IBTTA’s virtual meeting formats and the establishment of this Task Force, we’re already seeing more of that participation than we have in the past. I’m also very proud to be one of two people of color selected to be president of IBTTA, and my hope and my goal would be to ensure that I’m not the last.

I still frequently participate in industry discussions and forums where there’s only limited representation from people of color. Part of that could be information about the event; part of it could be that there still aren’t enough people of color in these fields of study. We need more enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, and that ties back to our efforts around education and developing that talent pipeline.

To make it happen, we must stress the value of having those conversations so that people understand the outcome we want, the diversity of thought to arrive at the best conclusions or plans.

That’s why it’s so important to highlight what people of color are already accomplishing in the industry, so that folks immediately recognize that it’s not rare.

There’s a lot of talent out there, and it comes in all different shapes, colors and sizes.

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