Becky Bradley: Leading transportation, planning and change

Bradley has more than 20 years of experience in city, regional, economic development, historic preservation and transportation planning in the Lehigh Valley. Since 2013, she has been the executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. She has significant experience in small-town revitalization, roadway redesign and trail construction. In her current role, she leads a $2.8 billion regional transportation planning program and balances the needs of a growing population.

After a few attempts to schedule an interview around Bradley’s schedule, we were able to connect in early April.

“… I haven’t left”

We had to go to the Midwest to pinpoint Bradley’s start in planning. She admits that when she started her career, government planning never made it onto her professional radar.

“Yeah, I didn’t even know what county planning was. I’ve never even heard of it,” Bradley said.

Her first planning gig involved a role in downtown revitalization for the state of Illinois.

“I really like the idea of that sense of place and culture and identity … empowering communities on how not to think it was over and how to revitalize their communities. That was my first job,” she said.

Listening to residents helped her understand their passions and how they wanted to work hard for the future of their communities and their families.

“I talked to people who cared so deeply about their children and their community … and I haven’t left,” she said.

Bradley entered the Lehigh Valley market in the 2000s. Prior to the Lehigh Valley commission, Bradley was director of planning, codes and development for the city of Easton.

When asked why she set up roots in the Lehigh Valley, she jokes about her husband’s deep family history.

“My husband’s family has been here since dinosaurs roamed the earth. I joke about it, but they have been here since 1732,” she said. The community’s beauty, family ties and proximity to bigger metropolitan areas were also part of the area’s draw.

“You get the best of everything,” Bradley said.

As the head of the planning commission, Bradley’s responsibilities are vast. Population growth, funding and transportation challenges, and the ability to anticipate and manage change all fall into her wheelhouse.

Here are some highlights from our interview:

Lehigh Valley Business: What are some of your biggest challenges?

Bradley: Population is growing. It’s growing about 1 percent per year. That’s roughly 4,000 new residents per year. Most of the migration is from North Jersey. There are residents coming from other areas, but by and large it’s North Jersey. It’s really ramped up over the last 10 years.

We are at the point where we are over 650,000 people. When you hit the 700,000 range you usually have more mobility problems – economic, environmental, educational, health – than you would have with less people per square mile.

We are kind of at a tipping point right now in deciding the next version of what that Lehigh Valley is going to be.

LVB: Why are people choosing to live in the Lehigh Valley?

Bradley: Fifty percent did grow up here. People are choosing the Lehigh Valley compared to other neighboring states. PA doesn’t tax retirement income and, in general, it doesn’t have higher property or business taxes than New Jersey, so there is an incentive to come to the Lehigh Valley and maintain their lifestyle.

If you talk to our developers who are doing urban or suburban development, they will tell you people of all generations want to live in all areas, and they can’t get them built fast enough.

“I get beat up just talking to people about freight.”

LVB: What are some of your biggest challenges with planning?

Bradley: Preparing ourselves for the reality of the future, as well as addressing some of the problems that we have now. Are the issues that we are addressing now, are they going to be issues in one year, two years or 10 years?

We are going to have to be in a constant cycle of training and re-training (the workforce). We are going to have to consistently build our skills in order to remain viable. This idea that we go to school, get a college degree, maybe get advanced education and a job and that’s the end of it? That ship sailed 10 years ago.

How can we work with our academic institutions, what’s our training (what’s that going to look like)? How do we maintain that into the future? A lot of it is getting information out to the people.

That’s really what planners do at the end of the day, they bring it together and lay the foundation.

Transportation discussion in the Lehigh Valley is a sensitive subject. Thousands commute and drive in the Lehigh Valley. Here are some ways that Bradley is addressing those subjects.

Bradley: We have to think long and hard how we repurpose malls and strip malls. The next frontier is what we call grey fields. Semi-vacant suburban strip malls and malls.

I did all of my holiday shopping from my phone. It was fantastic. I had so little stress. We have to be cognizant that that is the way things are going. People have grocery deliveries. People have food delivered to their offices. You can get catering delivered. The stores of the 21st century are online. Retail is changing.

Our transportation profile in America and across the world is growing. This isn’t just a Lehigh Valley issue. I want to make that very clear … It’s happening because of globalization.

It’s not just passenger cars and the occasional truck traffic. Now you have delivery vehicles going absolutely everywhere.

We have changed our strategy (with planning) because we have taken the time and we continue to take the time to understand the profile of freight. I get beat up just talking to people about freight … for a whole host of reasons … but at the end of day everything we have (goods) has taken more than one mode to get to us. Everything we do has a multiple transportation profile, even our food. As a result of that transportation, that is the future.

LVB: So how do you plan for that?

Bradley: We have to look at our mobility differently. We have to change our planning and investment strategy and we are doing that the best we can within the federal guidelines of our allocation of resources.

We are trying to do more with creating more walking and biking … direct more transportation dollars to a more multi-mobile future.

In most cases, 80 percent of the money from transportation comes from the federal government. The funding has not increased in 20 years, yet the cost of materials, demand on infrastructure, population has increased exponentially, not just in the Lehigh Valley.

Every year we do less because people don’t want to pay more in taxes. I’m just giving you the neutral facts. At the end of the day we have been in a very tax-adverse environment for a very long time. You put less in, eventually less is less.

“Everybody does work. Everyone just needs help; that’s just part of the deal.”

LVB: Because this interview was targeted to other women leaders locally and issues that might pertain to them, do you personally have any challenges getting your voice heard in your chosen field?

Bradley: I think as women we all have that issue with certain people, but less and less, for sure.

I grew up in a farming community. For me I never really thought about gender in the same way as someone else. Everybody does work. Everyone just needs help; that’s just part of the deal.

(As a female leader for the planning commission) I think other people feel it’s a bigger deal than I do, and I respect that, but I don’t know how to feel any other way than what I do feel, and that’s that I’m here to do a good job.

Two of the people that influenced my career the most, one was a very strong female figure and one was a very strong male figure.

LVB: What’s next?

Bradley: Change management happens to be a big thing about what you want to do. What you do today may not what you are going to want to do in nine months.

LVB: This makes your job tough, right?

Bradley: You don’t do what I do, or what the team does here, if you don’t like a good, compound, complex problem. It’s probably not a good idea to play any of us in Stratego or Risk. It isn’t. If it would be easy to solve, it would be solved by now. You have to like a good challenge.

The greatest gift you get being a planner is that you are helping entire communities. At the end of the day the payoff is that you make a whole lot of difference to a whole lot of people.

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