Becoming the Best, By TDOT Commissioner John Schroer

When I was appointed Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) four years ago, I set the course to lead our agency to become the best transportation agency in the nation. The Department’s vision is to serve the public by providing the best multimodal transportation system in the nation. The credo of providing and doing the best has permeated the culture of TDOT. Being the best is about getting up everyday with the attitude to strive to achieve your highest level of effort and going to bed each night reflecting on what you could have done better. The responsibilities of a DOT directly impact the lives of people everyday, and we have the opportunity to make a real difference in society. The passion and seriousness with which our employees perform their work is something in which I take a lot of pride.

The safety of the traveling public is always in the forefront of every decision we make at TDOT. The revolutionary advances in connected and autonomous vehicle technologies hold the potential to dramatically increase the safety of our roadways. In research conducted by the Volpe National Transportation System Center for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the safety benefit of connected technologies alone could reduce up to 81% of all unimpaired crashes involving cars or heavy vehicles. The promises of what technology will make possible in the 21st century are staggering, but they must not distract us from finding actionable ways to increase the safety for our citizens now.

Protect the Queue

In the summer of 2013, a young couple lost their lives as a result of a rear end collision while sitting in traffic caused by a non-injury crash on Interstate 24 south of Nashville. I could not say with a clear conscience that TDOT, as an agency, had done everything possible to prevent this tragedy.  The United States Department of Transportation estimates that incidents like this, known as secondary crashes, account for 18% of all fatalities on freeways nationally. As much as 25% of all traffic incidents are secondary crashes and up to 20% of those involve serious injuries or fatalities.  I felt strongly that TDOT could do more to protect innocent motorists from these secondary crashes. A campaign was initiated to focus the attention of department resources on addressing secondary crashes. This campaign, known as “Protect the Queue”, stresses to all TDOT employees and partnering agencies the importance of protecting drivers caught in a traffic queue (defined as a line of slow moving or stopped traffic).

Since the start of the Protect the Queue campaign, TDOT’s Incident Management Team and Regional Operations staff have risen to the challenge. Specially outfitted “queue trucks” are deployed and positioned to provide and maintain advance warning for approaching traffic. A Standard Operating Guideline has been developed to establish standard practices for queue protection. Queues resulting from construction related lane closures are being addressed with the Protect the Queue Construction Special Provision, which establishes specific contractor requirements for providing protection at the end of a queue. Additionally, special Protect the Queue reference cards have been distributed to all TDOT staff. Employees are directed to alert Traffic Management Centers (TMCs) of nonrecurring traffic queues witnessed during their daily commute or personal travels. Data from the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security shows an overall 30% reduction in secondary incidents between 2013 and 2014 calendar years.

Building Strong Partnerships

The quick clearance of traffic incidents is another area we are focusing on to increase the safety and efficiency of our transportation system. Our incident response personnel responded to 90,180 traffic incidents on Tennessee’s roadways in 2014. Keeping our roadways clear is a task we cannot accomplish without strong partnerships with other first responding agencies. The National Traffic Incident Management (TIM) Training program sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has served as a catalyst for accelerating the development of these partnerships across the state. In 2014, we partnered with the Tennessee Highway Patrol to build the nation’s first facility dedicated to TIM Training. This facility is bringing first responding agencies from across the state together to learn and form the key partnerships that save lives and increase the reliability of Tennessee’s roadway network.

Organizing to Support TSM&O - Past, Present & Future

On July 1st of this year, TDOT celebrated 100 years as a department by burying a time capsule to be opened in 2115. The storied history of transportation in this country has led us to become the most prosperous nation in the world. The pathway to continued prosperity is not the same as it was in 1956 when Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act for the construction of the Interstate System. The estimated delivery for a major road-building project in Tennessee is 10-12 years from development to construction. By following the traditional thinking of focusing on just building and adding lane miles, we can never hope to keep pace with the demands on our transportation infrastructure. The challenge of effectively managing and operating our roadway network is a responsibility transportation agencies must rise to, engaging fully to help sustain our greatness and competitiveness on the world’s stage. This is why, in January of 2013, TDOT elevated the importance of the management and operations of Tennessee’s roadway infrastructure by reorganizing to form the Traffic Operations Division.

The story of transportation systems management and operations in Tennessee really began back in 1993 when TDOT built one of the nation’s first fog detection and warning systems on I-75, north of Chattanooga. Since that time, TDOT has built four Transportation Management Centers in each of the state’s major metropolitan areas. These centers operate a total of 517 traffic cameras, 1291 road sensors, and 174 dynamic message signs. TDOT’s Incident Response program consists of 73 response vehicles that cover 342 patrol route miles of roadway seven days a week, 365 days a year. Prior to the creation of the Traffic Operations Division, the leadership of these and other operations focused programs was fragmented across multiple divisions and work units. There was the need for a strong strategic direction and ownership to propel TDOT forward in addressing how to effectively operate and manage our existing infrastructure and how we prepare to respond to the advances in transportation technology.

The world around us is changing faster with each passing day. When a crowd of TDOT employees stands around celebrating another 100 years of a job well done in providing the best transportation system possible, they will be living in a world that I can’t even fathom. They will open that time capsule from 2015 and marvel at the contents. The decisions we make and direction we chart today will have a very real significance for the transportation leaders of 2115. As such, we should approach our responsibility as leaders and professionals in this industry with passion. Another great tipping point in the evolution of our transportation system is on the horizon, and we must be ready to provide the push.