Becoming Resilient, Episode 3: Resiliency in Transportation
About This Episode
Host Derek Roessler sits down with transportation specialists Allison Fluitt, P.E., AICP, and Jonathan Guy, P.E., PTOE, AICP, to discuss the topic of resiliency and how it impacts the field of transportation. In this episode, Jonathan and Allison dive into the three ways resiliency appears in transportation projects, namely through planning, funding, and infrastructure, and how everything ultimately comes down to prioritization.
Read the Transcript
Derek Roessler: Hello, and welcome to episode three of our becoming resilient podcast, focused on the hot button issue of community readiness and resiliency. I’m your host, Derek Roessler. And today we’ll be focusing on the topic of resiliency in transportation. I’m joined once again by Jonathan Guy, a transportation specialist from our Charleston office and new to the conversation is Allison Fluitt, a transportation engineer and planner in our Raleigh office with 16 years of experience. Thank you both for being here and let’s dive right in.
When you think of the intersection of resiliency and transportation—sorry for the pun there—what comes to mind? Allison let’s start with you.
Allison Fluitt: Well, specifically when we’re thinking about transportation, what I tend to think about is: it really all comes down to prioritization. And I think about that in a number of different ways. Now, as Derek mentioned, I’m an engineer and a planner. When we think about this from a planning standpoint, we know that at a federal level, we’ve actually been told that resiliency is now one of our federal planning goals.
The F.A.S.T Act, otherwise known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation act, which was our newest federal transportation legislation effective December 2015, that actually gave us resiliency as a federal planning goal. That’s not something that was really clearly stated in the past. Now it was something that was in the ether, and I think people were certainly talking about it in other areas, but it actually rose to the level that the feds were communicating that as a priority.
Certainly, we know it’s a requirement, right? It’s out there. We have to be dealing with it as we think about planning, as we think about design and engineering, but why did it rise to the level of being a federal planning goal? How did we get there? And that’s when I start to think back about our system. Where are we right now?
Our entire system has become stressed over the years. We are not only physically stressed, but we’re also financially stressed. We’re at a critical point in time here. When I started my career, we were under the T-21 federal legislation. Since that time we’ve gone through various legislation, and now the FAST act, which is set to expire at the end of September of this year.
And in every single one of these, what we were telling the folks that we’ve worked with, the municipalities, the States and the metropolitan areas is: funding is at an all-time low. And that messaging has not changed in the 16 years that I’ve been working at Kimley-Horn. And so, what does that mean? We have become as lean and mean as we possibly can. We have reached a point where prioritization is really all about where we are. We have to make the right decision because we have fewer resources every single day. And we have to make sure those choices that we’re making are really making the best use of what little that we have to work with.
Derek: Jonathan, how about you?
Jonathan Guy: Yeah, I think it’s interesting the word “prioritization”. It’s becoming a critical element for us on all of our projects. We’re seeing it show up in these three specific elements of transportation projects: from the initial planning to the development of the infrastructure, and even more importantly, as Allison said in the funding. Years ago, we had more ability to fund projects, that was more revenue over the last projects. We could do more. Nowadays, we’re seeing projects are competing for the same space. They’re competing for the same dollars. Doing more with less is going to be a priority for us as we look at transportation projects, we look at how we fund those projects and how we implement those. How do we have that ability to accomplish the goals of the project in a meaningful way, but being able to do that in, in more lean times.
With all of that, how are we seeing resiliency manifest itself in transportation guidance and policy?
Allison: Yeah, thanks Derek. I think when I think about resiliency and really through the lens of transportation planning, we’ll first start to see it in our goal setting. Really, with any transportation planning project, and in a sense, as you think about our transportation design projects as well, we’re really thinking about goal setting as our first and foremost priority.
What is it that we’re really trying to get out of this process? What are we trying to respond to at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level, that’s really going to be important? And so, we start to see resiliency there first and foremost. How can we establish goals that embrace resiliency in multiple forms? We need to think early on in any process about what resiliency means for that area. I know in an earlier podcast, you talked about the fact that resiliency doesn’t just mean flooding. It can mean a lot of different things. So what does it mean for that area?
Let’s make sure that when we think about resiliency, that we are responding to the particular needs of that area and certainly creating that discrete link between the federal and state requirements and those local needs. That way, you can ultimately become more competitive for funding as you go on down the line. I think that transitions into project development because as you’re starting to identify the types of projects within any sort of plan, that plays a major role in how you begin to think about resiliency.
First off, you have to intentionally leverage those goals that you have available for the area, and making sure that every time you come up with a project, considering how it addresses those goals. If resiliency is a part of one or more of those goals, it then allows you to organically make that a part of every one of the projects that you’re developing and that manifests itself I think in a few different ways.
You can start to think about geographic dispersion of those projects, different project types, whether that’s different modes, whether that’s different ways to address needs, it could be widenings, new locations or smaller scale projects like intersection level projects, access management projects, even maintenance for preservation type projects.
And then also thinking about project extent. So maybe taking what could have been a larger scale project and starting to think of it more from a surgical standpoint of: Is there a small portion of this that I could do first that meets a critical need from a resiliency standpoint?
Looking at all of the different angles, when you identify those projects, that allows you to address the different facets of resiliency, and then come up with a more competitive list of projects as you migrate into prioritization.
Derek: Wow. That is a lot to consider there, especially when it comes to the prioritization, like you said. Jonathan, you mentioned a little bit before we started recording here that there’s a specific policy affecting you in South Carolina. Could you tell us more about that?
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. South Carolina is not known for doing a lot of things well, but one thing I will give them credit for is the South Carolina Act 114. Allison and I have worked on enough long range transportation plans to know the ins and outs of this. The interesting thing about it—while its intent was really to remove politics from selecting projects, the reverse of it has somewhat happened in the case of being able to give communities a greater voice in how they prioritize those projects.
A lot of people may have this misnomer that resiliency is about sea level rise or flooding or other things like that. In reality, it’s not. It’s preparing your community for adapting to stresses that may be placed upon that. With act 114, the communities can either follow a set of guidance that is stipulated for the selection of projects, or they have the ability to petition the board of transportation to come up with their own guidance for that and metrics that they would like to prioritize.
So we’re seeing a lot of communities use this under the lens of resiliency—how do we address flooding and congestion?—and they’re doing it based off their local experiences that they’ve seen. One plan Allison and I worked together to develop was the first MPO that had been created in more than 20 years in South Carolina.
It’s the low country, around Hilton Head/Beaufort, right there on the state line with Georgia. And as we developed their criteria, one of the things that was important for them in evaluating projects was hurricane evacuation. And so that was built in as a metric for them to look at.
As we begin to evolve into this next round of plans that are going to be updated for federal guidance, we’re going to see more and more emphasis placed on looking at the specifics of those corridors and looking at it again through that lens of resiliency: Where are we investing the dollars? What’s the return?
As Allison said, resiliency has a variety of aspects and overlays, if you will, that it’s applied to. It’s not just a geographical or a physical characteristic. You’ve also got resiliency associated with [incoherent]. And how does that fit into the dollars that we’re allocating for each of these projects? Where are we spending those dollars so that there is an equitable share that is impacting those disenfranchised communities. There’s a whole new aspect of transportation that’s starting to bubble up. And again, it goes back to that key word, we’ve said quite a bit: prioritization.
Allison: Jonathan, I loved what you pointed out with the low country example. They’re focused on hurricane evacuation. It’s certainly something that, in every community where we do this type of planning work, we see some of those local needs that are so unique to that area.
Just a couple of locations where I’m actually working right now on some planning efforts, for example, Cheyenne, Wyoming. You wouldn’t necessarily think it, but flooding is an issue in Cheyenne, particularly on some of their rural roads. And that’s something that we’re really helping them pay a little bit of attention to as we think about their overall project prioritization.
We also have to think about areas like Huntington, West Virginia. One of their biggest issues from a resiliency standpoint is system redundancy. They have one big interstate I-64 that runs through the area. And I tell you what, when there is a crash on that interstate, good luck getting through Huntington, West Virginia! They need to figure out ways and look for solutions of how to get through that and manage some of those system redundancy issues. It really is unique to every individual community.
Jonathan: Yeah, it is. And I like that parallel between Huntington and the low country. In each of those, you have a geographical constraint that’s affecting them completely different. Down here, it’s the marshes and the rivers and the bays and the lack of bridges that connect us up there. It’s the topography of the mountains and the hills surrounding the communities and the lack of roadways, too. Two completely geographic and ecological systems, but yet they struggle with connectivity. And it just goes to prove our point of resiliency is not bound by a coastal community. It is everywhere we work.
Derek: I really think by the end of the series, we need to get some form of that printed on tee shirts or bumper stickers or something. It’s certainly been one thing that I’ve taken away from all these conversations we’ve had. It’s interesting to see how resiliency can affect any town, any community, anywhere, regardless of their proximity to the sea. Jonathan, let me start with you on this next one:
How do you see resiliency impacting funding opportunities and any projects moving forward?
Jonathan: Derek, thank you. It is like we’ve said early on and often during this podcast: it’s prioritization. It’s critical. It’s how we prioritize those projects moving forward. That is going to be the key. When we look at both the short-term and long-term impacts to the environment, and to our wallet in a lot of ways. Allison said funding is already constrained, and we have been seeing that for many, many, many years now. Selecting those projects that can address the critical concerns is going to be what every community is going to be looking at. Again, I said this earlier, how do we do more with less? Or how do we use those resources in a better way? And I think that’s the key. It’s a mindset change that we have to bring forth.
A lot of the stuff that we’re doing in the resiliency space is already there. The engineering behind the design of a road is going to be the same, whether it’s a two-lane or a five-lane. There’s some key differences on how that’s done, but we need to look at solving problems differently. Let me give you an example.
If we’ve got a congested artery and that road connects much like Huntington, where they have one interstate facility through there, maybe the resources don’t need to be spent to widening that, but maybe they do make more sense improving adjacent connectors where it’s possible and giving people alternatives. That still solves the same issue: congestion on the major artery.
I think the important thing to take away from that is that it requires a mindset change. And that goes for all of us. How we look at solving projects needs to change. Rather than approaching projects from the traditional sense like we have, we need to be thinking about how we utilize our infrastructure in a different way, a better way. Instead of just widening a road, maybe it’s improving the connections to other streets, just like what we were talking about in Huntington, where we’ve got a major interstate facility that lacks parallel connectors. Maybe the investment is greater if we improve the parallel facilities that provide that connectivity. We still solve the issue, we’ve just done it in a different way. And that result may be that we can do more with spending less money. That is an important distinction in my mind. Thinking differently is required, not necessarily designing things differently. And that’s an important distinction.
Allison: That’s a really great point, Jonathan. I think one of the things that I’ve tried to be mindful of as resiliency has really just entered more of our daily conversation is that it comes down to thinking about things in a more opportunistic way. As we can think about our project process—the goals, identification, identifying projects, prioritization, and funding—these were steps that we’ve always gone through, but as we just think about resilience as an intentional step within each one of those things, I think it allows us to start to look for opportunities that maybe have been there before, but people just weren’t necessarily picking them out and saying, “Hey, this is really a chance to do something that wasn’t necessarily identified before.”
By thinking opportunistically, I think it also allows us to pursue those funding opportunities where they do exist and maybe look to intentionally link to those funding opportunities early on and say, “Hey, this looks like this could be a really good fit. Maybe let’s start to try to tailor some of our projects so that they can most closely align with some of those potential future funding sources.” And again, make themselves the most attractive candidates from moving on into implementation.
Once these do move on into implementation, what are the keys for seeing resiliency integrated into transportation?
Jonathan: That’s a great question. To me, it boils down to communication. In a lot of communities we’re working with, they’re doing a lot of good things already. They’re thinking of it in a different mindset. And it again goes back to that mindset change. How do we understand and look at it through a different lens?
Most communities are looking at solving congestion. That’s one of the big ones we face in transportation. I think our approach is a little bit different. For many years it’s been about solving congestion and how have we done that? We have essentially widened roads and widened roads and widen roads. And many transportation professionals will tell you, you can’t widen your way out of congestion. And that’s very true.
I think what we’re starting to see with communities is a change in that mindset of, it’s not just about the motor vehicle. It’s about transit. It’s about other modes of mobility, including bicycle and pedestrian that we have this whole picture. They’re learning how to communicate that out. Not only to the general public, but also to the elected officials. You’re starting to see that shift, which is really refreshing to see in the communities that we’re working in. And to me, it comes down to how do we articulate this in a better manner? So communication is the key moving forward.
Allison: And Jonathan, I totally agree with you and I would take it even one step further. One of the things that I truly am excited about as we continue to have these conversations about resilience is that it gives us the opportunity to be even more intentional with our conversations between planning, between engineering, between landscape architects and urban designers. And start to think about the bigger picture because resilience is about all of those things working together. I think that’s one thing that I’ve always really prided our team on doing from the get-go is working across those different lines on finding some collective solutions. But I think as an industry, we’re really starting to see that become more of a standard, like you said, Jonathan, it’s maybe not just about widening that road. It’s about understanding why that congestion is there. Maybe let’s understand, could we change those people to a different mode of transportation or different travel patterns? If we change the land use to surrounding them, who could we actually induce demand elsewhere? Or could we encourage people to work from home or do something a little bit differently? We have a chance to start to work across those different boundaries. And I think it really presents an opportunity to draw from the best perspective from all of those different disciplines and result in a series of projects that are going to be best suited to the needs of all of the different municipalities and governments with which we work.
Jonathan: I couldn’t agree more. I think you summed it up very well in describing that it’s about a mindset change and you’re right. Communities are approaching projects completely differently now and as we look around here in the Southeast, we’re seeing communities and our professional agencies, whether it’s DOT or the municipalities, they’re doing that due diligence upfront. They’re spending the time with the planning alternatives. They’re trying to figure out what gonna work best for these elements first before we go spend the dollars of design, where in the past it was “let’s jump to the foregone conclusion that we need to widen this road.” We’re seeing that change and it is refreshing to see that in our profession.
Derek: Excellent. Well, I believe that is all the conversation we had set for today. Jonathan, Allison, thank you both for your time and thank you all for joining us for episode three of our becoming resilient podcast. Tune in next time, when we discuss the topic of resiliency and how it relates to pavement management with Kimley-Horn’s, Tim Miller, and a special guest from our teaming partner, Roadbotics.
About the Speakers