What drew you to transportation?
It was an unplanned career choice and I just happened to bump into it through my nature of volunteering. I am surrounded by electrical and mechanical engineers in my family, so it was a natural step for me to gravitate towards mechanical engineering. At my first job, however, I volunteered to assist the transportation group on a major highway project (the Corning Bypass), and I have been hooked ever since! After 28 years in the industry, I look back at all the different types of projects I have been involved with, ranging from community plans to neighborhood business developments, residential developments, schools and places of worship, recreational and sporting event venues, neighborhood traffic calming programs, our region’s first roundabout, and now cycle tracks and bike lanes. It has truly been a journey! We don’t just plan and build infrastructure, we plan and build communities and the links that connect them.
What’s been your biggest challenge over the last 20 years?
20 years is a long time, but my biggest challenge certainly hasn’t been determining what’s next! Over the last twenty years, I have had some really great experiences working as a planning and engineering consultant and also working for a local university, operating and managing parking and transportation services. On a parallel track, 20 years ago I chaired my first ITE New York Upstate Section meeting, which launched my ITE leadership track at the section, district, and international levels. I was also involved in community organizations, volunteering my nights and weekends on comprehensive plan committees, transportation boards, and environmental management councils. The most important part of the last twenty years was raising my two children. I was heavily involved with their activities as an avid hockey and cheerleading mom. I travelled the northeast to every game and competition. I became a squad manager, a certified cheerleading coach, and later served on the high school hockey booster club. I have always enjoyed being busy and balancing all these activities and interest has been priceless. So my biggest challenge has been restraining myself from volunteering to do one more thing.
What project or task has been your most significant accomplishment so far?
Working most of my career in the private sector, I have had the opportunity to work on various projects for public and private agencies that varied in size and scope. One that stands out in my mind the most was a project in my own community. I was the project manager overseeing the expansion of a neighborhood plaza with a new big box commercial tenant, expansion of the grocery store, and introduction of a senior housing component to the area. All the project elements would be great additions to the community and in line with the prior master planning efforts. What I didn’t anticipate was the opposition by the community, not on the proposed uses, but on the timing of the project. The corridor was a major commuter route with notable congestion and safety concerns at one of the main intersections, and the NYSDOT had plans to improve it several years later. A moratorium on development was threatened that would delay the project for at least three years and would mean the new retail tenant would walk away from the project site. The public officials challenged the developer to come back with acceptable operations and safety at the intersection and to have the adjacent neighborhood associations to support the project. This was a tall order.
After meeting several times with the neighborhood associations and listening to their concerns, we developed a plan to install temporary improvements at the subject intersection with approval from the NYSDOT. We returned to the neighborhood associations with the plan, their options, and a petition in support of the project for their signatures. Our team was successful in formulating the right plan, showing our vested interest in addressing all of their concerns, and turning the opposition into supporters. It was the greatest feeling having these groups praising our team’s efforts and advocating for the significant benefits the community would experience as a result of the project. That project happened a while back, but really gave me the self-confidence needed to never give up, no matter how difficult the opposition is. All challenges can be overcome!
What skills have you had to learn along the way to remain relevant and/or to improve your effectiveness as a leader?
Remaining relevant requires having a desire to learn and to stay on top of the new trends. Improving your effectiveness as a leader, however, is based on the experiences you learn along the way. Leadership is the ability to motivate a group of people toward a common goal. It’s about having a vision, knowing how to achieve it, how to motivate and encourage a team, and how to measure and reward achievements. As a leader, you will only succeed through the success of your team. Learning how to be a team builder is so essential.
What is your decision making process, and how has it changed over time?
My decision making process has not changed over time. Similar to managing projects, the process starts with defining the opportunity, establishing goals and objectives, developing various options, assessing the pros and cons, and then recommending the option that best meets the project goals. Each of the steps is iterative and requires input from all the stakeholders. In today’s environment, decisions are complex and it is so critical to have the stakeholders involved right from the beginning, weighing in, learning, and taking the steps forward along the way. As a consultant, I have been trained to be a team builder, to get buy-in on various steps along the way. This process is inherent in my professional decision making process. I may have an opinion, but I often seek input and differing opinions before making a final decision.
Did you have any mentors along the way? How did they inspire you?
I had a lot of mentors, and still do – I call them my ITE family! It all started with my dad, though. I was his first born and only girl, so he always pushed me to achieve more. Even 95% on a test was not good enough; he would ask instead why I did not get 100%? My mentors over the years initially provided me with a sound technical foundation and then mentored me into management and leadership roles. My first mentor Ann Ketter (former ITE member) trained me in everything I needed to know (resources, software, procedures, etc.) about traffic engineering. My second mentor and coach, Bill Holthoff (former ITE member), taught me to replace the word “I” with “team” in everything I said. He coached me into being an advocate for our profession by always doing the right thing. He taught me to 1) understand what the customer needs, 2) never miss a deadline, and 3) always stay on budget. Other mentors such as Steve Gayle, Paul Eng Wong, and Frank Dolan showed me how to be visionary, to be nurturing of our younger members like they were with me, to be passionate about what we do, and to make ITE the best it can be. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to feel connected to a group that will enable you to grow and succeed. I remember saying once that I missed seeing some of my mentors at our local meetings because they had made such an impression on me in years past. My staff member looked at me with a quizzical look and said “but we have YOU, you are our mentor!” I hadn’t thought about it that way as I always thought of myself as young; now I am the “mentor” to younger generations.
Is there one piece of advice you’ve been given that you would like to pass on?
This piece of advice is based on my life-long learning experience. As a woman in engineering, you have to be great at what you do to be accepted as an equal. Earning respect from your peers means having to work harder to exceed expectations. I wish I could say that has changed over time. As women and mothers, we succeed through perseverance. We learn more at times through our stumbles, but we get up and push forward with vigilance and strength.
Was there ever anything that you wanted to do besides transportation? Do you ever look back on your career and wish you had tried something else instead?
I really do love what I do! The path I have taken has fit the person that I am. I have had the opportunity to work for so many clients, professionals, and agencies on a wide variety of projects. It has allowed me to be creative yet still be process-oriented and to make a difference in so many communities. It has been an amazing journey and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else!
What is the biggest risk you’ve had to take in your career so far?
The biggest risk I took in my career was about 10 years ago when I took a position in operations at a local university. I had worked with the university addressing transit and pedestrian safety issues on campus when the opportunity came along. Being a planner/engineer (plangineer) for so long, operating transportation and parking systems was something new to me. The position was a strategic hire to assess existing and future transportation needs associated with the campus growth. My leadership skills were very instrumental as the Director of Parking and Transportation Services, where I managed an annual operating budget of $3M and supervised approximately 50 people.
Looking back, we certainly had some major accomplishments, which included the complete restructuring of the department (it had been part of Campus Safety) and hiring permanent staff positions. We revamped the entire service program by introducing new software and hardware to everyday operations, including online parking permits and handheld ticket writers. Through this process we doubled parking revenues to support our programs, increased collection rates, and reduced adjudication rates, which are great performance measures. One of the fun components was completing the first ever Parking and Transportation Strategy Plan for the campus. This first strategic plan included instituting the first carshare program, enhancing transit services, initiating a bicycle program, and revolutionizing the parking operations at a time when campus growth was outpacing its physical means. Providing services to approximately 25,000 people per day was no easy task, but the lessons learned and experience gained in the operations side of the transportation industry is something every professional should have.
What do you see as the most pressing issue facing transportation in the next five years?
The biggest pressing issue facing transportation in the next five years is the rate of change. We are seeing major changes in our industry from technological advancements (autonomous and connected vehicles along with big data), societal changes (millennials and lifestyle trends), and economic, sustainability, and environmental concerns. Some of these are major changes that will have profound effects on our industry. These forces are leading the way in transforming what we do, what we are, and what services we provide. ITE must adapt to these changes and provide the tools our members will need to navigate this transition. Adapting also means potentially altering our structure, policies, and communication channels.
If you are elected ITE’s next International VP, what will you do to support young professionals in the transportation world?
If elected as International VP, I will be their biggest supporter! My ITE leadership through section and district leadership ranks nurtured my developmental leadership skills. But even then, it was my can-do attitude and constantly volunteering to give back to our organization and our members that drove me to who I am. There is one important thing about being a leader in ITE: it is all about the ITE family! At my section and district, we nurture, support, and enable each other’s growth. This is something I believe in and hope to enable it at the international level.
There are some tangible areas where I would immediately request younger professionals’ assistance. A recent membership survey identified several areas of improvement that could result in strong to moderate impact on membership value of the Institute. These items include Membership Benefits/Resources, ITE Annual Meeting and Exhibit, ITE Website, and Professional Development. Ideas for these that need to be considered include but are not limited to:
Annual Meeting and Exhibit – finding alternative meeting venues, reconsidering the organizational structure (such as unconference), making better use of technology, and potentially outsourcing should all be considered in order to make the meeting affordable and valued.
Professional Development – we must focus on our future and cut across multiple disciplines to define what we do in the near future. Professional development should also be more collaborative with other professional organizations that have focused on specific elements of our industry (NACTO, APA, CNU, ITS, TRB, and others). We are all facing the same challenges; why not work on this together instead of competing for the same audience?
Membership Benefits/Resources – International operations must focus on our members’ needs. This requires listening and letting our member needs drive ITE’s initiatives. Making our members feel listened to and more engaged in our future direction, our meetings, our councils, and our publications will improve the relevance and value of our organization.
ITE Website – our website needs a major overhaul, including searchability, accessibility, and relevant content. For example, why isn’t our mission statement on the front page? Our international operations also need to be more transparent through the website. Our website and community need to clearly reflect “who we are, what we do, and what services we offer.” While some efforts are currently underway with our website, this is an ongoing improvement process.
It will be my goal to enable our younger professionals in setting the future direction of ITE! ITE provided me the opportunities to lead; we must allow our younger professionals to share their visions for our future and allow them to develop the stepping stones to get there. My generation will be there to provide them guidance, will be there when they need us, and will be there to watch them succeed.
Thank you to YPT for this opportunity to share my candid thoughts.
For more information about Paula Flores Benway, visit http://www.ite.org/candidates/PaulaBenway/PaulaBenway.pdf