Using Innovation Strategically

Rapid adoption of innovative technologies and practices is helping transportation departments in Washington and Utah achieve strategic goals and serve their communities.

Thinking innovatively and working efficiently and safely are always good business practices, Federal Highway Administration Executive Director Thomas Everett told participants in April’s national State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) webcast. “Now is no different,” he said. “Our transportation system is fulfilling a critical role in serving communities and keeping roads operational.”

Times like these serve as a catalyst for creative thinking, Everett said. “We’ve largely shifted to conducting business virtually, yet we’re being strategic in the continued operation of our system. Collectively, we’ve proved that the transportation community is nimble in the wake of changing events.”

Enhancing Fish Passage in Washington

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) uses innovations such as project bundling, design-build, and accelerated bridge construction (ABC) to meet fish passage requirements for culverts on State roads. WSDOT’s fish passage program eliminates barriers along highways that restrict access to habitat. Since 2013, the State has accelerated barrier correction on streams in the Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula areas.

“We’re achieving efficiencies with innovation, mostly in contracting and construction techniques,” said WSDOT Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. “We’re using design-build delivery on bundles of projects. That gives us the opportunity to bring private sector innovations to bear.”

The design-build team on one project suggested rerouting a stream that crossed a State road to create a less-expensive crossing on a local road that guides fish to their destination faster. To avoid long road closures and detours on other projects, WSDOT applied ABC techniques such as building foundations during nighttime closures, restoring traffic during the day, and installing prefabricated structural elements on weekends. To date, WSDOT has completed 345 fish passage barrier corrections that allow access to more than 1,000 miles of fish habitat.

Advancing the Mission in Utah

“Our mission is innovating transportation solutions that strengthen Utah’s economy and enhance quality of life,” said Nathan Lee, director of technology and innovation at the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). Among the innovations UDOT uses to further this mission are unmanned aerial systems (UAS), virtual public involvement, and digital delivery.

UDOT’s UAS program grew from 1 certified pilot and four UAS in 2016 to 31 pilots and 41 drones today. “UAS are used in nearly every part of our department,” said UDOT UAS Program Manager Paul Wheeler, for applications such as incident management, inspection, and mapping.

The agency found that using UAS to gather incident scene data enabled responders to clear crashes four times faster than traditional methods. This is important because the likelihood of a secondary crash increases 2.8 percent each minute a primary incident stays on the road, every minute a lane is blocked increases delay after the incident is cleared by a factor of four, and traffic crashes kill more responders than any other line-of-duty cause of death.

UDOT introduced virtual public involvement techniques such as videos and story maps to supplement traditional strategies and enhance its ability to communicate clearly and concisely. “Virtual public involvement expands the ability for many people to participate, but traditional and in-person outreach tools should still be in the mix,” said Eileen Barron, UDOT strategic communications manager.

Three factors contributed to UDOT’s success in virtual public involvement, Barron said. A focus on decentralizing UDOT’s decision-making creates an openness to consider a variety of engagement options at the local level. The agency also emphasizes people and principles over projects, which allows project teams to determine which involvement tools would work best for their communities. “Finally, UDOT has invested in building a culture of innovation,” said Barron. “That culture of being open to trying new things is part of our day-to-day work.”

STIC State Transportation Innovation Councils logo

For the past six years, UDOT has focused on transforming project delivery with innovation, said Becky Hjelm, e-business project manager. UDOT used STIC Incentive funds to capture lessons learned on its first project advertised using a three-dimensional (3D) model as a legal document. From 2017 to 2020, UDOT awarded 11 projects with the 3D model as a legal document.

Accelerated Innovation Deployment (AID) Demonstration funds are helping UDOT build a repeatable process for digital delivery. The process will include standards, organization, storage, and communication of data throughout the road construction life cycle. “To support this work, we created a single site with the necessary resources, documentation, and training to help us achieve repeatability,” said Hjelm.


Apply for STIC Incentive funds to offset the cost of standardizing innovative practices. August 7 is the deadline for 2020 funding requests.

Apply for AID Demonstration funds to support innovation deployment on any phase of a highway project.

Contact your State STIC or Sara Lowry of the FHWA Center for Accelerating Innovation to get involved in the STIC network.