What We Are Learning from MPOs: A Virtual Peer Exchange on TSMO at the Local and Regional Level

My grandfather worked for both PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike as a bridge foreman.  Toward the end of his career, he prided himself on describing his job as “being responsible for all the bridges on the Turnpike between Somerset and the Ohio Line.” Whenever I drive over them on my travels back home, I think of him and the importance of keeping those bridges maintained to keep traffic moving and people safe. His definition of knowledge sharing would probably have been having a cup of coffee with a co-worker or someone he used to know at PennDOT to talk about slippery conditions on a bridge’s road surface or lessons learned from clean-up of an overturned truck and its spilt cargo. 

We have come a long way from my grandfather’s transportation agency:  technology and communications alone help us understand and tackle our challenges better than ever and the shift from maintaining our infrastructure to managing it is a subtle but significant consequence. 

With all of this in the back of my mind, I listened in on the recent NOCoE virtual peer exchange focused on the role of MPOs in transportation management and operations (TSMO) and came away with several important reminders and learnings from what was a great exchange of ideas and experiences.

First, within any given geographic region, TSMO is not the purview of a single agency. And because multiple institutions are in play, there has to be effective collaboration to address safety and mobility. The AZTECH and NITTEC initiatives in Arizona and New York respectively speak to this.  How does this start?  I am prompted by something Tom Lambert once told me; Houston Transtar began simply as a way for folks to tell each other what they were doing.  The current collaboration built on this—awareness, understanding, trust, shared responsibility—and things get done!

Second, it is no longer a matter of maintenance alone; managing road capacity is a big deal and one that “delivers more lanes” more cost effectively than building them.  This is our mantra as a TSMO community and effective agencies are ones who tell this story to the traveling public.  The Center’s spring Peer Exchange on Communications shined a light on how agencies are addressing this (check out the NOCoE Knowledge Center for details).  The public are our partners and we aspire for them to know and benefit from the managed systems under our care, they need to be in the middle of

Third, the notion of TSMO itself is an important discernment process for agencies at the state, regional, and local level.  Shifting from maintenance to management is happening thanks to the array of tools that have emerged in recent years.  I read where Pittsburgh will be bringing on adaptive traffic management technologies that will make a huge difference in a city confined by three rivers and a narrow downtown footprint.  If such platforms are to work well, as Pittsburgh and other jurisdictions have learned, they need to be a part of broad and deep institutionalization of TSMO within our agencies.  The MPO virtual peer exchange was an opportunity for participants to remind one another that we legitimately ask ourselves why we are doing this and what difference it will make.  And that, sometimes, thanks to processes like the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) that the Federal Highways Program created some hears ago, our self-evaluation helps us make sense of the journey we can and should take.

Finally, at the conclusion of the virtual peer exchange, it hit me that ideas like working together, engaging higher management, developing the right performance measures, and hiring and developing the appropriately skilled staff can sound like platitudes from the latest management book. Except that the organizations represented on the call applied these approaches in the context of having identified a specific problem to solve.  Platitudes quickly become useful and necessary tools when they are applied to real issues.  And tools like CMM become impactful as each agency assesses its role in the broader conversation around helping people and the goods and services they need get around.