Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Eno leadership conference helps student map route for transportation career


Michael Rodriguez is an associate consultant at Parsons Brinckerhoff, a firm that provides strategic consulting, planning, engineering, and program and construction management services to both public and private sector clients.


La Follette School student Michael Rodriguez rides the Metro in Washington, D.C., while attending the Eno Leadership Development Conference.

Workshop reports look at transportation, environmental issues

Michael Rodriguez came away from the Eno conference in Washington, D.C., with a broader perspective on why the City of Milwaukee asked his public affairs workshop team to look into a possible vehicle registration fee.

The project determines how a $20 municipal Michael Rodriguez in addition to the state fee would affect vehicle owners in the City of Milwaukee. The students' analysis indicates that while a flat fee is regressive, it would comprise such a small percentage of income – even at the lowest income levels – that the impact would be negligible. The analysis considers geographic area, income, property ownership (renters versus owners), and number of cars per household.

"The bottom line is that gas taxes are inefficient and insufficient, and it is states and local governments that face the brunt of that shortfall," says Rodriguez, who is in his third year of earning a double degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning. "Without a doubt, it is this crisis in transportation that leads cities to think outside the box to come up with new ways of funding their transportation systems."

The Milwaukee report was one of 11 reports produced by three public affairs workshops in spring 2008. Another examines whether a bottle deposit law is a feasible way to increase Wisconsin's recovery of recyclable beverage containers, which, in turn, benefits the environment, while a third evaluated new initiatives by China to encourage companies to reduce pollution.

2007 graduate Jen Blonn collaborated on a report that advised the Wisconsin Department of Administration on how to comply a mandate for Wisconsin's government to acquire 20 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by December 31, 2011. Jason Bittner, who graduated in 2000, examined design, licensing and alternative transportation options for older adults for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

This summer, La Follette School student Michael Rodriguez is taking his firsthand knowledge of how national transportation policies are developed on the road to Chicago.

Back from a weeklong transportation conference in Washington, D.C., Rodriguez is spending the summer interning with the Chicago Transit Authority.

Rodriguez was one of 20 Eno fellows selected to participate in the weeklong Eno Leadership Development Conference in May in Washington, D.C. He and other graduate students from around the country heard from high-level policymakers and participated in discussions on topics critical to the future of transportation. Speakers represented the government, industry and nonprofit sectors.

"I gained a strong understanding of federal transportation policy, particularly the coming crisis in federal transportation funding," he says. "I mainly took away that our system of gasoline taxes to fund roads and transit is not meeting 21st century needs, and we need better solutions to keep our surface transportation systems running."

Topics covered the federal budgeting and appropriations process, the transportation funding crisis, safety and security, sustainability and climate change, and career planning. The students prepared for and participated in a mock congressional hearing.

"The Eno program is well recognized in the transportation community and exposes students to the policymaking process in the transportation domain," says Midwest Regional University Transportation Center Deputy Director and La Follette alum Jason Bittner, who was an Eno fellow in 2000. "It is an honor to be selected."

This fall Rodriguez, who worked with Bittner at the Midwest Regional University Transportation Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, will start his third and final year toward his double degree in public affairs and urban and regional planning. Rodriguez is also earning a certificate in transportation management and policy, which the center sponsors. He came to the La Follette School after an internship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the aviation department. He has since interned at Fehr & Peers, a California-based transportation consulting firm.

In Chicago this summer, Rodriguez is doing project management for transit technology implementation efforts, such as a system that allows bus mileage to be wirelessly transmitted to the maintenance garage. "I am also working on 'next train technology,' to inform riders when a train is arriving through web and mobile interfaces, as well as visual displays at the stations," he says.

Once he completes his degree, he hopes to work in transit planning or transportation management for a large city, preferably in the Bay Area. "I'm interested in public policy as it pertains to the urban planning process, land use and transportation," he says, "especially in the policy and planning perspective on how governments create sustainable built environments for all residents."

This requires an approach to transportation that incorporates planning, public policy and engineering, he says. "The interdisciplinary nature of the La Follette program with the double degree in urban planning has the flexibility I need to become a better transportation professional."

Rodriguez is the second La Follette student in recent years to win an Eno fellowship. 2007 graduate Jen Blonn went to Washington, D.C., the year before. She is now an environmental protection specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. This summer she is on a detail to the Bay Area Rapid Transit District. "I'm working with transit experts from 15 transit agencies in the U.S. and Canada to draft industrywide sustainability guidelines for transit," she says. "The American Public Transportation Association is also providing support for the project and will promote the completed guidelines."

Bittner says the networking that continues after the Eno fellows conference is invaluable. "Some of my cohorts and I meet regularly, have collaborated on projects, and provided advice, comment, and review of materials," he says. "This is an invaluable service for young professionals. I am working on projects with peers from Texas A&M and Cal State Long Beach who were in my Eno class. I've provided contact information for others that has led to job opportunities, one of our center's consortium partner reps is from my Eno class, and I have continued networking with Eno staff as they advanced in their own careers."

Like Rodriguez, Blonn worked with Bittner at the Midwest Regional University Transportation Center, which provides sponsoring funding for the Eno program. "Eno gave me the opportunity to hear about transportation challenges directly from top management and appointed officials with real decision-making authority," says Blonn, who earned a certificate in transportation management and policy in addition to her Master of Public Affairs. "The need to improve partnering between sectors came up throughout the conference and motivated me to pursue my interest in jointly addressing environmental and transportation issues."

— updated October 11, 2010