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Al Grant, COG's First Transportation Planning Director, Remembered For His Leadership and Contributions to the Region

Jun 16, 2015

Al Grant

When Al Grant arrived at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) in 1966, he brought with him a wealth of experience. The former chief bridge designer for the District of Columbia's Department of Highways and Traffic would lead COG's new transportation planning department and staff responsible for supporting the newly-minted Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Grant passed away in April. Looking back, his TPB colleagues will tell you that it was his leadership style and appreciation for consensus-building that transformed the TPB into a trusted organization with a reputation of making sound regional planning decisions.

Grant's first years with COG and the TPB were challenging. The TPB was a new player in the region. Alongside Walter Scheiber, COG's first executive director, Grant used his diplomacy and numerous professional relationships in the transportation and engineering communities to slowly, but surely, convince all of the major state and local stakeholders of the merits and benefits of participating in a new metropolitan planning process. He was a skillful negotiator notorious for working behind the scenes to ensure that the players involved with a particular initiative or project were on the same page before they even walked through COG's doors for a meeting.

Under Grant's watch, the region's transportation system underwent important changes. In the late 1960s, COG and the TPB's first regional household travel survey identified the habits and needs of area commuters. In response to the survey, express bus service was developed for those commuting in and out of downtown, providing a quick and affordable way for the region's residents to get to work. At the recommendation of the TPB, two lanes of Shirley Highway (I-395) were reserved for these express buses during the morning rush hour, speeding them in and out of the downtown core. A few years later, after the debut of the region's Metro system and amid concerns about future construction costs, COG and the TPB carried out a comprehensive assessment of the costs of expanding the new rail system, deeming it to be a worthy investment. What began as a single 4.2-mile line in 1976 has since grown to become a system of more than 117 miles.

A computerized carpool matching service called Commuter Club was also launched under Grant's leadership in response to the 1973 oil embargo. The program, now called Commuter Connections, today provides commuters with ridematching options, access to the regional Guaranteed Ride Home program, and helps area employers establish commuter benefit and assistance programs for their employees. Just last year, Grant returned to COG to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Commuter Connections and presented the Commuter Connections Employer Award.

Staff remember Grant for his distinct management style, recall that he was a true gentleman, and say he ran his meetings in the utmost professional manner. He never raised his voice. His office was kept in pristine condition, papers neatly arranged and his number-three pencils all in a row. His valued assistant, Martha Dunning, kept his affairs in order and served as a mother-hen to the rest of the staff. Memos that came across his desk were always returned with at least one edit, and it became a competition among younger staffers to author the perfect piece of writing, which, according to those who were there, never happened.

Grant retired from COG in 1987 after 21 years of service. Even after his departure, he continued to advocate for infrastructure issues at the regional and national levels. For decades he had been involved with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and served as president of the organization in 1988. In 2010, Grant received the ASCE President's Medal for his distinguished service to the industry and his work on sustainability. He also served as a mentor to Catholic University students.

One of Grant's greatest pleasures was playing tennis. He also played the piano, which he practiced every day. He was active in his synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Kensington, where he was very involved with the Global Mitzvah Project.

In an interview with the ASCE's Civil Engineering magazine in 2002, Grant said, "One of the things that's important to me is trying to leave for our children and our grandchildren as nice a world as we had. ... That's something I think everyone can identify with."

COG and the TPB are grateful for Grant's leadership. COG has only had two other transportation planning directors since its founding -- Ron Kirby who served from 1987 to 2013 and Kanti Srikanth who joined in 2014. Along with COG's founders, Grant ignited a culture of cooperation and consensus-building that still guides the people and the work of COG and the TPB today.

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