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Organizing for TSMO: 2020 Peer Exchange Report


Executive Summary

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) hosted a group of Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) leaders to share their agencies' experiences in advancing TSMO programs. This report gives an overview of the discussions and the important takeaways of the "Organizing for TSMO Peer Exchange" held on February 26 and 27, 2020.

Agencies have taken important steps to advance TSMO programs and planning while implementing action plans to advance TSMO objectives. This peer exchange brought together a diverse set of State and local peers to share valuable information about their agencies' experiences with advancing and implementing TSMO and to learn from their peers. The event included a roundtable discussion at the beginning and then four focused sessions:

  • Session 1 (Organizational improvements to support advancing TSMO) focused on organizational improvements to support advancing TSMO and opened with two peer presentations on how agencies organize around TSMO. The participants then broke into two groups for a facilitated exercise on organizational structure.
  • Session 2 (Collaboration/Partnerships that advance TSMO) addressed collaboration and partnerships that advance TSMO and began with two peer presentations on the types of collaborative efforts agencies are implementing and insights on partnerships needed to advance TSMO. After the peers made their presentations, the participants took part in a facilitated discussion to further explore the various approaches in collaboration to advance TSMO.
  • Session 3 (Communicating TSMO: Making the business case and branding) dealt with communicating TSMO, including making the business case and branding, and opened with two peer presentations on how agencies communicate TSMO ideals. After the peers made their presentations, the participants broke into two groups for a facilitated exercise on communicating TSMO.
  • Session 4 (Priority Issues Session) asked participants to brainstorm a list of priority topics that are worth further exploration in the peer exchange environment. The group prioritized and narrowed down the full list, and the facilitators and FHWA highlighted four topics. Participants divided into four small groups and discussed each topic in greater detail.

Representatives from 15 organizations participated in the peer exchange, including from: 12 State departments of transportation (DOTs), two metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and one regional transportation commission. In addition, representatives from FHWA were in attendance.

Key Takeaways

The TSMO community of practice has matured in the past decade. From the beginning of the National Academy of Sciences Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) to the current rollout of research completed under that program, DOT leaders have supported integrating research outputs into agencies across the nation. This peer exchange provided a valuable opportunity for a group of TSMO leaders to share experiences and have conversations about how TSMO programs are succeeding across the nation and across the wide diversity of TSMO program approaches—generally unique to each agency. Throughout the two-day exchange, participants highlighted many important aspects of advancing operations, including the following key takeaways.

Institutionalizing TSMO

  • Agencies exhibit a wide spectrum of "organizational approaches" to TSMO. Participants acknowledged there is no "right answer" or "one-size-fits-all" structure, and that successful models depend on individual context. While some agencies have benefited from a substantial reorganization around TSMO, others have found success from building on legacy roles and structure to add a TSMO focus.
  • DOTs and other entities have built many successful partnerships around TSMO. Collaboration has allowed DOTs to mainstream and institutionalize TSMO beyond agency-centric approaches. Participants recognized the unique and important role that MPOs have in advancing TSMO regionally, and State DOTs recognized the importance of engaging MPOs as key stakeholders. While MPOs do not operate the roadway network, they often are integral in policy, planning, and funding functions of programs.
  • Making the case for TSMO operations and maintenance (O&M) funding involves collecting and analyzing historical cost data at the unit level, developing specific system plans that consider O&M needs (e.g., telecommunications), and demonstrating the consequence of reduced level of service by affected TSMO strategy.
  • To monetize TSMO benefits—which can help build program support and demonstrate effectiveness—agencies can develop a common understanding among practitioners on how to use available data, take advantage of available modeling tools, employ storytelling to leverage qualitative outcomes, and consider the effectiveness of the delivery medium, especially one that is digestible and relatable.
  • Participants strongly felt that changes in leadership remain one of the most critical issues to address when institutionalizing TSMO and executing a TSMO plan. Even among well-established programs and programs where the agency's head is a TSMO "champion," there is always a risk that the program will regress (or even be eliminated) after a change in leadership.
  • Agencies have an ongoing need to build and maintain the business case for TSMO, regardless of program status, so that the program is understood to be invaluable and irreplaceable over the long term.

TSMO Readiness

  • Participants anticipate that TSMO mainstreaming will continue. Agencies indicated that they will continue to formalize TSMO as a prominent, frequently top-tier program by deploying a "TSMO first" stance to tackle mobility, accessibility, and system reliability issues across multiple modes, with increased collaboration among public- and private-sector partners and further leveraging of advanced technologies.
  • If participants had one additional employee to support their TSMO program needs, the most frequently mentioned uses would be further mainstreaming TSMO by striking the right balance with targeted capacity improvement projects, furthering agency inreach and outreach to advance a TSMO mindset and build program understanding, gaining further data analytics capacity, and deploying programmatic or leadership capacity to focus on agency-wide coordination and consistency.
  • When communicating TSMO messages, agencies need the messages to be deliberate, consistent, and proactive in tone. Agencies can tailor messages that communicate the need for TSMO and its outcomes to a variety of internal and external stakeholder groups to build program awareness, buy-in, and effective contribution to its implementation.
  • Successful TSMO workforce practices include working with universities or trade schools to incorporate TSMO into engineering curricula; leveraging existing certification programs to build information technology (IT) and data management skills; promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs in high schools and community colleges; and building internal awareness through new-hire orientation programs, cross-training, and rotational programs.
  • The TSMO community of practice has matured in the past decade with many more States implementing TSMO plans and advancing TSMO planning. In general, the landscape where TSMO topics are discussed has expanded further throughout agencies, beyond just those staff involved in intelligent transportation systems (ITS), traffic engineering, and other day-to-day operational activities.

TSMO Implementation

  • Agencies shared that they could address the challenges of harnessing the growing availability and volumes of data, developing actionable performance measures, and communicating outcomes tailored to different audiences by constructing simple, standardized dashboards for TSMO. An existing example is the National Bridge Inventory for bridge inspection reporting.
  • Big data, crowdsourced data, and connected vehicle and infrastructure data will continue to fuel demand for TSMO professionals, data scientists, and others versed in complex performance analysis. Some participants see the benefits of increased internal capacity within the State DOT or an IT department to manage and analyze the increased data streams.
  • Striking the right balance between applying TSMO solutions and traditional capacity improvements to system demands was a top concern among some participants; they noted that there is always a need for strategic capacity additions, or at least system reconstruction activities. Acknowledging this need while also considering TSMO a comparable tool to address mobility and safety issues allows agencies to achieve better program success.

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