February 18


Dr. No A few weeks ago I posted about Kevin Lacy of the NC DOT reporting David Cox to the licensing board becasue Mr. Cox was practicing traffic engineering without a license.  "Anonymous" (anon@mous.com) submitted a clarifying comment that is worth reading at the bottom of the post.

Apparently Mr. Cox was quite prolific and persistent with his request for the traffic signal.  The interesting point of the comment from "anonymous" for me is the insinuation that the engineers are the decision makers and Mr. Cox should have left him alone once he made the decision that a traffic signal wasn't justified at the intersection. 

When I got to Maple Grove (my first and only public position) I thought the buck stopped on my desk too.  A few weeks into the job one of the council member's cats was run over on a neighborhood street.  She brought it up at the next council meeting and the council decided all way stop signs should be installed at the intersection by her house.  The city engineer (my boss Ken Ashfeld) didn't fight that decision too hard.  He came into my office the next morning and told me about the situation.  I started quoting the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices on how we need to do a warrant study based on the traffic volumes to see if the intersection met the criteria for installing all way stop signs. 

Ken stopped me short and asked me how long I wanted to work for Maple Grove.  I was stunned and asked him what he met.  He explained that the politicians are elected to make decisions and that we are merely advisers to them.  The politicians delegate a lot of decisions to the staff, but they can come in and overrule us on any decision.  It's their prerogative to weigh competing factors (i.e. mobility vs. safety vs. economic development vs. public opinion etc.).  It was our role to lay out the options and make a recommendation for the elected officials to consider.  If we didn't like a decision it was always our individual pregoative to resign our position.

Ken is a very savvy city engineer (and now public works director) who has had a long, well respected tenure.  Gerry Butcher (his long time boss and predecessor as public works director) had a 30+ run with Maple Grove.  I learned from these two masters how to be a successful adviser to the city council.  Ken and Gerry would let things go like the all way stop sign at the back of a sleepy neighborhood (not a great engineering decision, but one with little downside involved), but would speak up on matters that had more significant consequences.  In those situations, the council almost always heeded their advice.  They new how to pick their battles.

Coming back to Mr. Lacy vs. Mr. Cox.  The data "anonymous" cited points to the traffic signal being a bad idea.  I typically support the position of only installing traffic signals when they are needed based on existing traffic volumes (a dirty little secret is that there are more crashes at intersections with traffic signals versus comparable intersections with just stop signs, we hope we are trading more crashes for less severe crashes).

Mr. Cox has every right as a citizen to be persistent and to go to his public representatives if he doesn't agree with a public employee's decision. It appears his request may have been extreme, but "anonymous" implies he should have taken Mr. Lacy's decision as the last word on the issue.

Based on the data in the comment from "anonymous," I would also come to the conclusion that a signal shouldn't be installed at that intersection and I would have thoroughly documented my decision (disclosure -there's a lot of he said, she said involved and I haven't reviewed the actual data).  But thanks to the lessons I learned from Mr. Ashfeld and Mr. Butcher, I would have politely absorbed Mr. Cox's attack and not stooped to reporting him to the licensing board.

  • Mr. Lacy’s former instructor at NC State was interviewed by a Raleigh TV station and disagreed with his approach:
    “[Dr. Joseph] Hummer would not talk about the complaint filed by DOT engineer Kevin Lacy, but did talk about what he would have done. He said he would have listened to the neighborhood group. ‘There is a philosophy in transportation engineering right now called being context sensitive, and so that is really all about listening,’ said Dr. Hummer.”
    However, the NC association of professional engineers came out with a statement supporting Mr. Lacy:
    “But, if a PE did not prepare the Homeowner’s analysis yet, wanted it to be accepted as true, quality engineering work – good enough to stand against engineering work signed and sealed – then they degraded the profession of engineering. The public should be thankful to Mr. Lacy for performing his duty as a licensed professional engineer and should respect the high standards set by the engineering profession to first and foremost protect the public.”

  • I think it is worth pointing out that Kevin Lacy serves as the State Traffic Engineer at the disretion of the Governor. At NCDOT all senior managment positions require the governor to approve the appointment and all employees in these positions have to re-apply for their positions when the governor changes.
    Also Kevin Lacy is, by NC Law, the person who makes the final decision on a signal based on the information they are presented.

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    Mike Spack

    My mission is to help traffic engineers, transportation planners, and other transportation professionals improve our world.

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