Advancing transportation management and operations in the United States

R. Marshall Elizer, Jr., P.E., PTOE
Transportation Services Manager
Gresham, Smith & Partners
Nashville, Tennessee
Chair, APWA Audit Committee

What is "Transportation Operations"?
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines transportation operations as the provision of integrated systems and services that make the best use of existing transportation systems to preserve and improve customer-related performance. This is done in anticipation of, or in response to, both recurring and non-recurring conditions. Operations includes a range of activities in both urban and rural environments, including: routine traffic and transit operations, public safety responses, incident management, snow and ice management, network/facility management, planned construction disruptions, and traveler/shipper information.

Today, transportation professionals are embracing the need to improve the performance of their transportation system through a stronger commitment to management and operations. Now more than ever, the operations community is accepting the call to move from a dialogue on the issues of system mobility, reliability, and security, to promoting and supporting actions necessary to meet the challenges these issues present.

The National Transportation Operations Coalition (NTOC) serves as an important foundation for institutionalizing management and operations into the transportation industry. This alliance of national associations, practitioners, and private sector groups represents the collective interests of stakeholders at state, local, and regional levels who have a wide range of experience in operations, planning and public safety.

The Evolution of the NTOC
In 1999, FHWA initiated the National Dialogue on Transportation Operations in an attempt to encourage discussions on operations issues and advocate for a stronger focus on operating the nation's transportation system. Congestion continues to be a topic of social and political interest that continues to have a significant impact on the economic productivity of the United States. As a result of growing concerns in mobility and system reliability, the transportation operations community identified the need to devote greater attention to strategies that would help our existing transportation infrastructure perform as intended. The National Dialogue represented a formal "call to arms" for increasing consciousness and encouraging the transportation community to adopt strategies that promote building, maintaining, and operating a transportation system that is safe, reliable and secure.

Some of the major initiatives of the National Dialogue on Transportation Operations have included a series of white papers developed to serve as a foundation for future debate on the need for a stronger commitment to operations; an electronic dialogue initiated to facilitate ongoing discussions on the meaning and role of transportation operations; and a National Summit on Operations held to obtain a broad consensus on the key challenges and next steps needed to advance transportation operations. The Summit concluded with these recommendations:

  1. Increase focus on transportation operations
  2. Define transportation operations in a meaningful way
  3. Develop performance-based decision-making; focus on safety, security and reliability; and develop an information infrastructureSupport planning for operations
  4. Support homeland security
  5. Accelerate cultural changes through policies and practices
  6. Enhance interagency coordination
  7. Continue operations programs and policies

The activities leading up to and following the National Summit laid the foundation for moving the transportation operations community from dialogue to action. As a result, institutional changes continue to take place at the federal, state and local levels, fostering a new environment focused on improving mobility and reliability through better operation of the transportation system. This shift in thinking has lead to the evolution of the National Dialogue and the creation of the NTOC.

Current NTOC Activities
The NTOC currently consists of a number of subcommittees and action teams that are actively working on activities to promote management and operations strategies and benefits to stakeholders. The status of current subcommittees and action teams include the following:

Small Urban and Rural Transportation Operations Action Team
One of the first activities being undertaken by the Subcommittee on Rural Transportation Operations is to conduct a broad assessment of transportation operations in small urban and rural areas. The assessment will identify needs and issues that will drive initiative activities. It will also identify high-priority information and training topics and the best ways to deliver them to the small urban and rural areas. The Advanced Traffic Analysis Center (ATAC) at North Dakota State University developed a dedicated website (www.surtoc.org) that will facilitate the assessment effort and potentially provide a forum for future activities. Results will be made available in late summer 2006. The Small Urban and Rural Transportation Operations Coalition was established in partnership with the National Transportation Operations Coalition. This initiative aims at identifying small urban and rural areas' high-priority traffic operations needs, learning from and applying successful practices, developing a resource (help desk) for technical information and training opportunities, and providing a forum to network and share information.

Traffic Signal Operations Action Team
The NTOC Signal Action Team is pursuing several parallel efforts. The team had discussions about the need for and content of a training course on preventive maintenance and record keeping for traffic signal systems. Further discussion on audience and content is necessary. The team has developed two short marketing pieces (one for elected/appointed leaders; one for practitioners) with the idea of broadly distributing the materials through NTOC associations. They would be distributed to support the release of several FHWA documents on traffic signals including "Signal Timing on a Shoestring." The team is discussing the use of "traffic signal audits" (similar to roadway safety audits) as a tool to advance signal operations and increase attention. A one-page description was developed for discussion.

Performance Measurement Action Team
The NTOC Performance Measures team developed a report identifying a "few good measures" for operations. Eleven operations performance measures were agreed upon, and high-level definitions and guidance developed for each. The full report on the measures can be found at: http://www.icma.org/main/ld.asp?ldid=19673&hsid=1&tpid=7. Since the report was finalized in the summer of 2005, the Performance Measures team has worked on identifying opportunities to work with states/MPOs to pilot some or all of the measures. Specifically, a proposal has been submitted for a National Cooperative Highway Research Program project that would allow for piloting of a number of measures and determine whether they are useful and to tighten up the definitions and guidance for those measures. The I-95 Corridor Coalition has also expressed interest in working with the NTOC to pilot some of the measures in their new performance measurement project.

Business Case for Transportation Operations Action Team
The Illuminations LLC team out of Syracuse University is currently conducting research related to the development of the Transportation Operations Business Plan (Strategic Marketing Plan). Part of this research effort includes the facilitation (or observation) and analysis of focus groups at various conferences and meetings of key Transportation Operations constituents: NARC, ITE, AASHTO, NCSL and PTI. In addition, approximately 60 one-on-one interviews and more than 10 agency interviews are planned (and some have been conducted) to get more in-depth responses to some of the key questions/concerns. Illuminations is also in the process of conducting an assessment of marketing materials and analyzing/categorizing the impacts those materials have on stakeholders in promoting and supporting Transportation Systems Management and Operations. Using the information collected, the team will use marketing segmentation and information needs assessments to help develop the critical elements of the Business Plan, which will be presented at the June NTOC Meeting.

Planning for Operations Action Team
The Planning for Operations Action Team, lead by the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO), is beginning development of a guidebook to assist transportation planners with implementing the operations requirements in SAFETEA-LU and to integrate planning and operations. This project will create a practical guide for use by practitioners on the elements that should be considered when addressing operations in the planning process. The elements will be illustrated through brief case studies and examples from current practice. The guide will contain two parts: a short, high-level brochure targeted to high-level officials and decision makers in the metropolitan transportation planning process; and a concise, practical guide targeted to transportation practitioners that includes checklists and examples of how MPOs and others have addressed operations in the planning process, and the challenges and opportunities of doing so. The publication will be available late 2006.

Funding Compendium for Transportation Operations Action Team
Show Me...the Money: A Decision-Maker's Funding Compendium for Transportation Systems Management and Operations provides an overview of existing transportation and non-transportation federal funding sources available to government organizations. The publication includes more than twenty case study examples of innovative funding strategies that state and local governments have used to fund transportation operations projects as well as project outcomes. The publication was produced by the National Transportation Operations Coalition, with key leadership from the Public Technology Institute (PTI) utilizing the expertise of their Transportation Council, which consists of local officials responsible for transportation programs in PTI-member cities and counties. The publication will be available electronically and in hardcopy format later in 2006.

Professional Development Action Team
In June 2005, the NTOC members identified training and professional capacity building as a key priority for advancing systems operations and management. NTOC members identified a need to advance training activities at multiple levels, including field level and operations center staff and mid-level professionals. Through a grant from the National Academy of Science, a curriculum was developed for a Transportation Management, Policy, and Operations certificate program for mid-level professionals. The National Academies is working with the University Transportation Centers to support this program. The certificate program will be a multi-semester course of study which will be delivered through distance learning by a network of universities. In addition, with championship from the AASHTO Subcommittee on Systems Operations and Management (SSOM), the National Cooperative Highway Research Program funded scoping and piloting of an Operations Academy in its 2007 program allocations. This program is expected to be a concentrated multi-week training program to introduce mid-level management and engineering staff to the concepts of systems operations and management. Finally, through a grant from Caltrans, Long Beach City College is developing a curriculum for ITS technicians and TMC operators. The NTOC action team plans realize the need to develop a mechanism for coordinating and providing information about training activities, and identifying gaps. The action team plans to meet in 2007 to advance these goals.

Local Government Action Team
The local government action team plans to meet in early May 2007 to discuss specific issues and opportunities related to advancing transportation operations at the local government level.

Learning More about NTOC
To learn more about the NTOC and its current activities visit http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/nat_dialogue.htm. The NTOC meets biannually and subcommittees and action teams meet regularly throughout the year. The NTOC is open to new members interested in transportation management and operations. Participation is on a volunteer basis.

In order to increase communications about M&O and ITS-related news, the National Transportation Operations Coalition distributes a free e-newsletter called NTOC Talks every other Wednesday. Council members are encouraged to subscribe to this free resource as it will be the mechanism used to keep everyone up-to-date on current news, upcoming meetings, and available products and documents pertaining to M&O and ITS. Simply send an e-mail to the NTOC communications liaison, Michelle Birdsall, at mbirdsall@ite.org with the word "Subscribe" in the subject header.

In addition to the e-newsletter, the NTOC website, www.ntoctalks.com/index.php, is a valuable resource that includes discussion forums, the Talking Operations Web Conference series, links to ITS and M&O resources, calendars of events and training opportunities, and a Web version of the NTOC Talks newsletter that is updated in between e-mail distribution dates. You can also access an archive of past newsletter issues on the site. If you have any questions about the newsletter or website, please contact Michelle at (202) 289-0222 ext. 139.

R. Marshall Elizer, Jr. is a former member of the APWA Board of Directors and the Transportation, Finance, and Congress Planning Committees. He can be reached at (615) 770-8348 or meliz@gspnet.com.