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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-15-004    Date:  May/June 2015
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-15-004
Issue No: Vol. 78 No. 6
Date: May/June 2015

 

Smooth Operators

by Grant Zammit and Ben Irwin

AASHTO and its partners recently launched the National Operations Center of Excellence to help transportation agencies establish systems management and operations as a discipline.

Transportation system management and operations plays a significant role in addressing reliability and improving safety. Here, staff in the McConnell Public Safety Transportation Operations Center monitor roadways in northern Virginia.
Transportation system management and operations plays a significant role in addressing reliability and improving safety. Here, staff in the McConnell Public Safety Transportation Operations Center monitor roadways in northern Virginia.

Even transportation professionals find themselves stuck in traffic at times. If you are among those who have been caught in highway congestion, you are not alone in your frustration. U.S. drivers know that feeling all too well. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2012 Urban Mobility Report, roadway congestion cost the United States $121 billion in delays and fuel in 2011 and gobbled up 5.5 billion hours of travelers’ time.

In today’s reality, funding and space constraints mean that State and local transportation agencies cannot simply construct new roads to address traffic congestion. Instead, transportation professionals are looking to improve the operations of existing highway networks to optimize capacity and improve reliable travel. Improving operations involves using new approaches and tools. Although the transportation community has quickly adopted strategies such as the coordination of traffic signals, management of work zones, electronic tolling, and traveler information systems, few departments of transportation have fully integrated these practices into their overall frameworks for transportation system management and operations (TSM&O).

As described in the article “A New Approach to Improving Travel Times,” published in the November/December 2014 issue of Public Roads, TSM&O is defined as “integrated strategies to optimize the performance of existing infrastructure through the implementation of multimodal and intermodal, cross-jurisdictional systems, services, and projects designed to preserve capacity and improve security, safety, and reliability of the transportation system.”

Historically, TSM&O has not received broad institutional support, as evidenced by the lack of dedicated funding, established institutional structures, cost/benefit data, training in university curricula, and coordination among transportation partners. As a result, for those charged with solving the Nation’s pressing congestion and safety challenges, the process of accessing the information and resources needed to improve operations has left many transportation professionals feeling, well, stuck in traffic.

With the January 2015 launch of a National Operations Center of Excellence, practitioners, researchers, and decisionmakers now have a central resource for finding information, training, and communities of interest focused on advancing improvements in reliability and safety. Operated through an agreement among the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), the center is a first-of-its-kind organization for advancing TSM&O.

The National Operations Center of Excellence identifies best practices so individual agencies and the transportation community as a whole can benefit from the improved safety and reduced costs associated with a better planned and operated highway system.

Traffic delays, such as this backup on a detour route in Washington State, come with a high price tag for U.S. drivers and businesses.
Traffic delays, such as this backup on a detour route in Washington State, come with a high price tag for U.S. drivers and businesses.

“Proactively operating the transportation system in the most efficient manner possible is vital to keeping America--both passengers and freight--moving,” says Jeff Lindley, FHWA’s associate administrator for operations.

Developed in part through the second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2), the National Operations Center of Excellence seeks to institutionalize TSM&O across the country. The center provides State departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, regional planning organizations, product developers, service providers, system designers, and a host of other interested organizations with a single, continually improving source of information and technical support. The goals include helping agencies use the center’s resources to address congestion and improve safety on roadways, reduce delays and disruptions caused by incidents, minimize the adverse effects of work zones and inclement weather, provide timely and accurate information to travelers, and improve the linkages between modes for passengers and freight.

Here, three first responders are looking a car that suffered significant damage in a crash.
Crashes on the Nation’s roadways cause significant travel delays and put first responders and other road users in harm’s way.

“The center provides an opportunity to bring together an emerging and diverse community of TSM&O practitioners,” says Gummada Murthy, associate program director of operations with AASHTO. “Whether you work for a State, county, city, or a consultant, the center allows you to find the information you need to help do your job, and it also gives you the ability to share your knowledge with your peers.”

SHRP2: The Beginnings of The Center of Excellence

The National Operations Center of Excellence is itself a story of innovation and partnership, from its roots within SHRP2 to ongoing collaboration. The Transportation Research Board (TRB), AASHTO, ITSA, and ITE work closely with the Federal Highway Administration to ensure the center meets the needs of practitioners, industry leaders, researchers, and policymakers.

The National Operations Center of Excellence logo.

The framework for the center stems from SHRP2, a national research program designed to identify solutions to help transportation professionals plan, operate, maintain, and ensure safety on the Nation’s roadways. SHRP2 itself is a partnership among FHWA, AASHTO, and TRB, which administered the research phase of the program. Research on Reliability--one of four SHRP2 focus areas--is pursuing solutions to help agencies create more dependable and predictable travel times by reducing congestion.

Practitioners can use SHRP2 Reliability products and tools to analyze travel times, improve design strategies, establish programs to collect data and develop performance measures, improve agency and staff capabilities in TSM&O, and better implement strategies to manage traffic incidents. Among the products that emerged from the SHRP2 Reliability focus area is Organizing for Reliability Tools, a suite of workshops, guides, and online resources to help transportation agencies assess and enhance their TSM&O capabilities at an organizational level. 

The SHRP2 research revealed that agencies needed a comprehensive and accessible resource to support an updated Reliability knowledge base and to help them locate guidelines and tools to meet their specific needs. Agency officials reported that finding the right information tailored to specific circumstances is challenging, given the volume, expanse, and changing nature of information available in publications and online. Therefore, another SHRP2 project, originally called A Framework for Improving Travel-Time Reliability (Project L17), studied the current state of the practice and knowledge base for TSM&O. The project identified knowledge gaps and opportunities to develop a comprehensive resource to capture the results of the Reliability focus area and make them available to agencies.

The SHRP2 framework study found that although a variety of organizations provided resources on how to improve highway operations, barriers still prevented establishment of an integrated TSM&O discipline. One barrier was lack of coordination. Organizations such as AASHTO, the National Transportation Operations Coalition, and the I–95 Corridor Coalition all make important contributions to improving the state of the practice of TSM&O. However, these and a host of other efforts exist within separate organizations and have less frequent interaction than necessary for a unified resource. Furthermore, the professionals who could benefit most from the available resources were often unaware of them or found the materials were not tailored to their needs.

Perhaps the most daunting barrier the researchers found to establishing a robust TSM&O discipline was the lack of a forum for transportation professionals to discuss challenges, share best practices, and make professional connections. In contrast to other disciplines within the highway community, such as construction and planning, a community of practice for TSM&O professionals was still quite new. Limited or relatively few agency or industry forums and professional conferences were being held, and few operations-focused publications had appeared. A clear need existed, the researchers concluded, for consolidated outreach and community building to engage practitioners, researchers, and policymakers in sharing and accessing existing and emerging insights about TSM&O.

“With the center’s ability to focus on and highlight an array of information resources for the TSM&O community, it will spur invaluable collaboration and innovation in the field to achieve the transportation outcomes [that are] important for our country,” says Tom Kern, executive vice president of ITSA.

Supporting Knowledge Transfer

The SHRP2 L17 project took the first steps to address the need for a community of practice by developing an online resource known as the Knowledge Transfer System. The system facilitated access to SHRP2 Reliability products and provided a prototype for a Web portal for the TSM&O community. The Knowledge Transfer System also included a business case primer, which provided tools such as key messages, 30-second speeches, and talking points to help agencies effectively communicate the need for TSM&O to targeted audiences.

As part of the development of the Knowledge Transfer System, researchers identified groups of relevant knowledge that ultimately drove development of the National Operations Center of Excellence. Examples include definitions and frequently asked questions, technical understanding and analytic tools, facts and statistics about TSM&O, relevant standards and regulations, current news and events relevant to the community, outreach and marketing tools, and education and training.

During the implementation phase of SHRP2, FHWA worked with AASHTO, ITE, and ITSA to expand the capabilities and content of the Knowledge Transfer System significantly, creating the Enhanced Knowledge Transfer System. In an early step to develop the enhanced system, researchers conducted market studies of practitioners, policymakers, and others to learn about what they needed and wanted in the resource. Results of this research indicated several needs: the ability to sift through information quickly to find the most relevant resources, access to best practices and experiences of other agencies, interaction with others in the TSM&O community, a single location to house the latest information, and knowledgeable staff to answer questions and help direct users to the right information. FHWA and its SHRP2 partners addressed these needs in the design of the Enhanced Knowledge Transfer System by adding advanced search capabilities, interactive features (such as discussion forums and blogs), and on-demand training. This enhanced Web portal became the foundation for the National Operations Center of Excellence.

What Is SHRP2 Reliability?

SHRP2 Reliability includes assessment, analysis, decisionmaking, knowledge transfer, training tools, and activities to help transportation agencies improve operations and realize more consistent, dependable highway travel time for travelers and freight.

Blue clock faceBy using the tools developed under SHRP2 to improve travel time reliability, agencies reduce the negative impacts of nonrecurring traffic, such as the unexpected congestion, the costs associated with late deliveries, the frustration of missed appointments, and the safety risks to travelers and responders involved in traffic incidents. Reliability products also help practitioners optimize existing highway capacity and make informed decisions about addressing future congestion.

For more information, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/GoSHRP2.

“The center will allow individuals from public, private, and academic perspectives to share information through an active discussion forum, knowledge database, events, and regular newsletter,” says Douglas E. Noble, senior director of management and operations with ITE. “This will lift the knowledge of TSM&O practice for our entire profession as well as other interested stakeholders.”

Building on Examples

In conjunction with the SHRP2 L17 project, TRB authorized additional research to design a National Operations Center of Excellence. Commissioned through TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program, the research outlined various approaches and recommendations for creating such a center. In addition, the researchers examined other centers of excellence, including AASHTO’s Center for Environmental Excellence. The research provided examples of successful concepts, functions, and initial business cases from which came the beginnings of the new operations center of excellence.

The Center for Environmental Excellence was a useful comparison, given the similarities between its functions and the anticipated needs of the National Operations Center of Excellence. For example, the Center for Environmental Excellence is designed to serve as a resource for transportation professionals seeking technical assistance, training, information exchange, partnership-building opportunities, and quick and easy access to environmental tools. This center also includes a Web site, guidelines, peer exchanges, webinars and webcasts, and a library of handbooks and reports. Comparable funding demands and a similar organizational makeup also made the Center for Environmental Excellence a good initial model.

“As a founding board member for the AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence, I have seen how it has grown to become an invaluable resource for environmental professionals in both State DOTs and environmental resource agencies,” says Neil Pedersen, executive director of TRB. “We expect the National Operations Center of Excellence will serve a similar role for operations professionals.”

What the Operations Center of Excellence Offers

How can you as a transportation professional benefit from using the National Operations Center of Excellence? For starters, the center is your first point of contact to find guidelines and regulations and to receive technical assistance. It is a repository for best practices and lessons learned from peers. The center also is your gateway for participating in a community of like-minded professionals, where you can stay informed about the latest news and events associated with highway operations and be connected to helpful products that have resulted from SHRP2.

Screen capture of the home page of the National Operations Center of Excellence Web site.
The keystone of the National Operations Center of Excellence is its Web site.

“While acting as a catalyst to mainstream transportation operations, the center will strive to become a trusted and a well-used Web site by TSM&O practitioners,” says Dennis Motiani, director of the new center. “And [we hope the center will] become their first natural stop when searching or browsing for TSM&O topics or looking for lessons learned from best practices.”

In response to the needs identified during the extensive SHRP2 research, the center transfers existing knowledge to audiences through assisted search functionality and refinement of content and makes TSM&O more visible within the transportation community. The center also facilitates peer exchanges and networking, and identifies new, relevant knowledge to disseminate, effectively curating the existing knowledge base to ensure that the most up-to-date information is available.

The knowledge base is one of the center’s defining characteristics. The center’s staff will continually update and improve the scope and quality of information provided, including expanding best practices, monitoring the needs of the TSM&O community, and periodically evaluating the effectiveness of the center’s resources.

The primary resource currently offered by the operations center of excellence is its Web site at www.transportationops.org, which is a portal to the resources from the Enhanced Knowledge Transfer System. That system also builds upon the outreach and training resources developed by the National Transportation Operations Coalition, which has provided a forum for practitioners to discuss improving performance-based service delivery of TSM&O and supporting technologies. By incorporating functions derived from the coalition, such as discussion forums, newsletters, and webcasts, the National Operations Center of Excellence has begun to grow into a robust TSM&O community.

The center also offers a program of technical services that includes a series of webinars, workshops, and summits. In addition, center staff can answer questions and connect practitioners to applicable reports, products, and other informational resources. Individuals can submit questions through the center’s Web site. 

SHRP2 Solutions TSM&O Resources Tool

While the center of excellence will add information and opportunities for technical assistance and exchange over time, its backbone--the collection of SHRP2 Reliability products--will remain an accessible and useful resource. To help practitioners navigate through all the SHRP2 research and related products, FHWA and its SHRP2 partners developed an advanced search tool.

The advanced search tool is an important feature of the center’s Web site. It enables any site visitor to enter specific parameters associated with his or her organization and needs and find the relevant SHRP2 resources. The search then pinpoints the exact location within those resources where the sought-after information is located.

By answering a few simple questions, Web site visitors can find precise starting points for achieving key goals such as building an organization to support TSM&O functions, improving the travel time reliability of roadways, achieving better performance on highway systems, and improving planning and management decisions. Through a simple interface, the search tool leads users to the most appropriate SHRP2 Reliability solutions.

What’s Next?

With the National Operations Center of Excellence in its inaugural year, now is the time to become involved. Practitioners, researchers, and decisionmakers can visit the center’s Web site to find the latest information about improving transportation systems management and operations within DOTs, MPOs, and throughout the transportation community.

By reviewing new resources, such as additional products emerging from SHRP2, and by engaging in the interactive forums, each visitor can play a role in addressing congestion, improving roadway safety, and building a lasting, integrated TSM&O practice to support the Nation’s transportation network.


Grant Zammit is the manager of the Operations Technical Service Team in the FHWA Resource Center. The team provides training on operations and freight, technical assistance, and deployment support to Federal, State, and local partners. Zammit received his B.S. in civil engineering from Oregon State University and his M.S. in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Ben Irwin is a senior communications specialist who works with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to help Federal, State, and local agencies promote transportation safety programs and innovations. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa.

For more information, contact Grant Zammit at 404–562–3575 or grant.zammit@dot.gov.

 

 

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