Newest Planning Software Receives Enthusiastic Applause
A little known but decades-long relationship between the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) is suddenly and steadily emerging thanks to the development of a travel demand-model application tool. The tool is the Texas Package Suite of Programs (simply known as TexPACK), and it’s receiving recognition from transportation professionals across the state.
TexPACK is a computer software interface used by most metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and TxDOT district planning offices, whose transportation planners are embracing the tool’s ease of use and new data visualization features. First developed for TxDOT in 2014, TexPACK helps planners apply transportation demand models (TDMs) specific to their regions. Although a vital part of transportation planning since the 1950s, TDMs are derived from complicated mathematical equations and assumptions involving current and future population, households, employment, trips and numerous other variables. In the universal effort to quantify future transportation needs, a lot can go wrong in creating models relevant to specific areas.
“TexPACK is about 6 years old, but this latest version developed by TTI software engineers is wowing our customers and users,” says Bill Knowles, TxDOT’s Traffic Section Director in the Transportation Planning and Programming Division (TPP). “TexPACK is helping unite our specialized community, especially with these recent improvements.” Knowles points out that TexPACK offers planners a single model application platform, which creates a common system for measuring and communicating results.
“TexPACK Version 2.5 simplifies the process and provides a common application platform for all uses in the state,” says Research Scientist Andy Mullins, manager of TTI’s Travel Forecasting Program. “TTI staff (including Shoupeng Tang, Hao Pang, John Murray and LD White and led by Kevin Hall) have assisted TxDOT with continuously improving the product; most recently with several substantial technical and results visualization enhancements. The latest of these were delivered within a month of being requested and ahead of the original development schedule.”
Hall explains that the latest version includes new trip generation software and an HTML-based model results tool. In one recent case, a contractor recommended that an MPO use TexPACK instead of having a customized version created by a contractor. “And that enthusiastic reception by transportation professionals is really growing,” explains Mullins.
“Travel demand models are part science and part art,” explains Chris Didear, branch manager, TxDOT Transportation Analysis System Support. “TTI accomplished both with TexPACK. The tool takes very complex modeling technology and simplifies it into an automated function so that users don’t have to have to worry about the formatting of inputs, manually processing model steps or calculation errors. And in our world, that is a big hurdle.”
Didear says the success of TexPACK shines a light on the transportation planning collaboration between TTI and TxDOT, which began 70 years ago, when the Texas Highway Department first asked the Institute to help it create transportation planning models.
The partnership has been operating under the radar, since most people outside the transportation planning community don’t know about this unique aspect of the TxDOT/TTI relationship. As part of that contract — and especially because the modeling has become more and more complicated — TTI offers a two-person Help Desk and in-person training to TxDOT and its regional and local planning partners. That same contract helped with the creation of TexPACK, and in developing the subsequent, improved versions to date.
“We have identified improvements for future versions of the TexPACK tool several releases out and have a new release well under way,” Hall says. “Chances remain good that motorists won’t know about us, or TexPACK. However, we do think they appreciate what the TexPACK software helps create — better transportation planning for the future. We are working to make that happen every day.”