State Agency Chiefs Break Down Issues Facing DOTs in CEO Roundtable Panels

AASHTO Journal, 15 January 2016

The Transportation Research Board’s 2016 annual meeting included three panel sessions Jan. 12 that featured state department of transportation chief executives discussing some of the hottest topics facing their agencies.

trombinotrb.jpg Trombino

Paul Trombino, Iowa DOT director and AASHTO president, moderated a panel focused on how state DOTs can bring innovative technologies into the mainstream of DOT planning and operations.

Trombino and his panelists – Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, Arkansas Department of Highways and Transportation Director Scott Bennett and Nebraska Department of Roads Director Kyle Schneweis – each indicated the key was to empower agency employees.

“Do you have an organization where your employees are fully engaged? If you don’t, you’ll have huge challenges,” said Trombino.

Rahn agreed, noting that state DOT directors often have just a few years to oversee organizational change. So managing performance management is a key strategy for creating an environment that leads to adoption of new technologies.

To effect change, “it does take a very focused approach that comes from the top,” Rahn said.

Schneweis said managers need to tap into the “sense of responsibility” employees hold toward public resources, and can do that by including focused performance measures in their management programs.

When asked about the added costs of incorporating new technologies, Bennett said his agency takes a long-term view: “To me, it’s not about the cost, it’s about the benefits we get.”

ceospanel.jpg From left: CEOs Schneweis, Rahn and Bennett.

Separately, California DOT Director Malcolm Dougherty moderated a panel discussion on resiliency and the ways in which state DOTs are planning for and responding to changes in climate and extreme weather events.

His panelists were Pennsylvania DOT Director Leslie Richards, Delaware Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan and Colorado DOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt. All described recent severe weather events that had damaged their transportation networks.

“I think it is fair to say that every state has had its share of adverse events,” said Dougherty, whose state recently suffered severe flooding, mudslides and fires.

“That is what we’re betting on right now . . . what I’m certain of is that we’re going to get more of this,” said Bhatt, who also talked about the severe mountain flooding that washed out many roads and rail tracks in Colorado during September 2013.

Richards said that in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s most flood-prone states, officials recently commissioned the state’s first resiliency study. She said plans need to include educational campaigns and public outreach.

While most states face severe weather events, Delaware also sees challenges from rising sea levels as Cohan said her state has the nation’s lowest mean elevation with dikes and levees already protecting lands. She said resilience planning needs to focus not only on what can be protected, but also on what should be protected and at what cost. “This is an extremely passionate issue in Delaware,” said Cohan.

She noted that her department is vacating its first road this year due to rising sea levels. “We have to start somewhere and this was the logical first step.”

Four state agency CEO discussed ways in which their departments were adapting to “multimodalism,” both in moving beyond highway needs to building transportation systems to reflect the more varied ways people want to travel, and to take into account freight movement along with mobility of people.

Minnesota DOT Commissioner Charles Zelle moderated that panel, which included Connecticut’s James Redeker, Lynn Peterson of Washington state and Maine’s David Bernhardt, who is AASHTO’s current vice president.

Zelle opened the discussion by talking about Minnesota’s efforts to expand bike and pedestrian facilities along roads, and working with the deep-water port at Duluth to better handle ship cargo traffic.

Redeker noted that Connecticut has launched a new dedicated-guideway bus transit system to help move more people without adding cars to already busy interstates. On the freight side, he said one of the biggest challenges is that his state has many bridges that cannot handle full-sized, 80,000-lb. cargo trucks. Connecticut is a major “truck bottleneck” state, he said, and is taking steps to address that.

Several of the executives talked about how their agencies had evolved from designing road projects without pedestrians in mind to today’s programs in which they work closely with local officials and plan projects for the most access by various modes.

They are also now looking at various modes together – roads, transit, passenger rail, paths – to move people more efficiently in an area or to connect communities

Peterson said the WSDOT is changing its mindset from a highway project focus to a corridor-needs focus, such as on the always-busy Interstate 5 corridor, and looking to incorporate options such as transit and rail to move people instead of just trying to build highway lanes. “It’s changing our internal mindset,” she said.

Bernhardt agreed. He said the focus should not be on the transportation systems, whether highways, transit, rail, ferries or air. “It is truly about our customers,” he said. “That is what we need to focus on.”

In fact, he said, “90 percent of my time is spent on multimodal” issues or projects. He said the Maine DOT has sharply expanded a fund for multimodal projects in recent years, including freight rail, ports, bike/ped, transit and aviation categories.

One problem was that it needed to have money that the state could spend in a “nimble” manner, he said, to be able to act quickly with other partners such as private freight interests might line up funds to help pay for a project. And he said in working on multimodal projects with other partners he has found that often the DOT needed to take the lead in bringing the participants together even when it might provide only a small part of total project funding.

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