TSMO and Maintenance

Courtney Sell is a Transportation Engineer at WashDOT and has been working with NOCoE as part of our new fellowship program.

Early in June, I attended the Maintenance and Operations Peer Exchange in Montgomery, Alabama hosted by NOCoE. Representatives from FHWA, AASHTO, NOCoE, and eight state DOTs and around the country including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Washington State attended the peer exchange to share how Maintenance and Transportation System Management and Operations (TSMO) work together.  (See full report)

Since working in the Washington State DOT (WSDOT) Traffic office, I have gained TSMO knowledge and experience from implementing peak-use bus on shoulder operations, programing and tuning ramp meters, and learning how to operate an active traffic management (ATM) corridor with variable message signs, lane control signs, and variable advisory speed limits. While understanding the engineering side of TSMO strategies, the effects on Maintenance are also important for me to understand to see how the entire system functions. Because of the importance of maintenance to safety and mobility, attending the Maintenance and Operations Peer Exchange was an incredible learning opportunity.

One of the highlights for this peer exchange was learning how different states have similar TSMO and maintenance goals, but approach the solution differently. One example is incident management. Most states have a similar goal to remove incidents from the roadway as safely and quickly as possible. One approach we saw was to add larger vehicles to their fleet that had the power and equipment attachments to respond and remove more types of incidents. Another option taken by others, especially in rural areas, was to find something or someone nearby that had equipment that could do the job before specialized DOT equipment could be dispatched and arrive at the scene.

The peer exchange also helped me realize that state DOTs across the country face similar challenges with funding, workforce development, and recruitment and retention. Many TSMO strategies require extra maintenance work to keep ITS components operational or more frequent sweeping and brushing for peak-use shoulders. This is in addition to other work maintenance already does including signals, signing, striping, RPMs, bridge work, roadside, facilities, vegetation management, and several other tasks. Assigning more TSMO work to maintenance crews can lead to the need to hire more staff, contract out work, or extend work hours; all of which result in costing more money in an already limited budget.

An emphasis on many teenagers and young adults is to attend college or university for higher education and to earn a degree, not usually maintenance-related. This can leave a shortage of people with technical skills often found in trade schools. Shifting recruitment to focus on trade schools could open a new pool of candidates who already have the skills needed for the maintenance workforce. Retaining existing maintenance employees could also be helped by sending them to technical schools, if interested, to learn a new skill or develop their existing ones. Often private industries are able to offer higher pay and similar benefits to government agencies, so government agencies must now look for other strategies to keep their employees like flexible work schedules or opportunity for learning, growth, and advancement.

With operations strategies like hard shoulder running or bus on shoulder, maintenance crews have other challenges. These strategies usually involve narrowing lanes or shoulders in order to accommodate an extra lane of live traffic during certain periods of the day. Narrowed lanes or shoulders can result in maintenance needing to take an additional lane to complete a job, whereas before they may have had enough room on the shoulder area alone. From the engineering and operations side, the implications of TSMO on the maintenance workforce is important to consider.

Attending the Maintenance and Operations Peer Exchange was just one opportunity I have had to explore how TSMO is being used around the country, make new contacts in both the public and private sectors, and improve soft skills for my career. Earlier this year I was offered the chance to work with NOCoE on a pilot fellowship program to help achieve goals in my individual development plan (IDP). Through a series of phone calls and emails with the team at NOCoE, we agreed on a few aspects to focus on that included building an individual profile, improving public and small group speaking skills, gaining leadership and management skills, and extending my network of out-of-state contacts and breadth of knowledge of national TSMO solutions. 

During the Oregon Regional Operations Leadership Forum (ROLF) earlier this year, one of my outcome goals was to deliver a presentation targeted at entry-level engineers to give an overview of TSMO and the benefits as well as encourage them to think about how operations could be included into projects. NOCoE has provided me resources and guidelines for how to make an engaging and effective presentation as well as challenged me with setting deadlines for them to review the slides and watch a practice run to provide constructive feedback. This alone has improved my strategy and confidence for giving future presentations. Setting deadlines and communicating intended outcomes for others is a management skill I did not have much practice within my professional career before starting work with NOCoE, either, but has since become easier and a great benefit for management opportunities in the future.

While working on the presentation, participating in the ROLF, and attending national meetings, I met several new professionals in the maintenance and operations fields. Networking opportunities are one of the most beneficial ways to make connections in other states to collaborate on different maintenance and operations systems and share successes and lessons learned.

Working with the NOCoE team has provided me several valuable opportunities and resources to work on soft skills in my IDP and technical knowledge from a nation-wide standpoint that will improve my ability to grow in my career.