With more than 12,000 employees and serving a state comprising nearly 270,000 square miles, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is responsible for the largest state transportation system in the nation.
To better manage the vastly different mobility needs across the Lone Star State, TxDOT established 25 geographic districts and 34 disciplinary divisions. Organizing personnel in that way allows agency experts — in road maintenance, safety and traffic operations, to name a few areas — to address problems relevant to their region.
TxDOT has launched the Innovative Transportation in Texas program to identify, evaluate and develop innovative solutions to meet the growing transportation needs across the state. In addition to the main goal of fostering innovation, this program will bring together all districts’ innovative projects in one database as a shared resource.
“TxDOT continues to lead the way in bringing together new solutions from each district that could be implemented across the entire agency,” says Darran Anderson, TxDOT director of strategy and innovation. “This initiative will make TxDOT more efficient and ensure we focus on safety for our users and employees.”
For example, maintaining an eight-lane freeway in Houston is a different problem than reducing crashes at rural intersections in West Texas. But that doesn’t mean a solution in one region can’t be relevant to a problem in another.
“Districts focus on solving their local problems, as they should,” explains Bob Brydia, senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). “And they often do that by thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative solutions to a problem they’re facing. What we’re doing with this project is helping facilitate even more innovations with TxDOT and then get the word out about them across the entire department so that innovations in one district can be expanded to other districts.”
To help TxDOT’s districts and divisions learn from one another’s applied innovations, TxDOT and TTI developed the Planning Innovation Deployment project. Work began in March 2022 and, due to the success of the program, will continue into 2024. The approach is to:
- investigate to determine technological and methodological innovations implemented at the district level,
- communicate those inventions via user-friendly tech transfer tools (e.g., informative flyers and PowerPoint presentations) to build awareness agencywide,
- facilitate district workshops to plan for additional innovations, and
- execute new projects with districts as partners to develop local solutions that have potential statewide application.
TTI leads Kevin Balke, Jim Cline and John Speed join Brydia as principal coordinators of the Institute’s efforts on TxDOT’s behalf. Working together, the team — which consists of more than 25 TTI subject matter experts — leads workshops, fosters and oversees innovation projects, prepares outreach materials, and advances the department’s innovation culture.
One of the first steps was to define innovation in a way most relevant to TxDOT. “The agency’s strategic goals are focused on making transportation better, more mobile and safer for system users,” says Brydia. “Looking at transportation improvements in terms of their value was a necessary first step in helping us define the landscape we’re working in.”
To date, the project has focused on how deploying new technology can improve traffic operations. For example, during a recent visit to the Yoakum District, the TTI team met with the district leadership, who initially expressed a desire for a system to warn drivers of slowdowns resulting from work zones down the road. Just such a system was developed in recent years as part of the My35 Project in Waco. Called an end-of-queue warning system, it uses real-time data gathering to feed roadside message signs and other information channels, like social media, to help travelers not only plan their trips in advance but also improve travel time reliability. Most importantly, the system makes drivers aware of those slowdowns, which can save lives by helping avoid unnecessary collisions.
“The district was delighted to hear such a system already exists and has been proven to work effectively,” Brydia says. “That’s exactly the kind of meeting of the minds we’re trying to achieve with this project. Even more importantly, the existing innovation allows TxDOT and TTI to work on the next problem facing the district.”
TTI has so far produced summaries on 18 traffic operations innovations across the state. The summaries can be found at TxDOT.gov (see the link at the end of this story). They can be used to answer questions like, “Has anyone addressed this problem before? How was it solved? Will that solution work locally in my area?” The potential for saving untold personnel hours and tax dollars otherwise spent in reinventing a wheel that already exists is clear.
In the future, Brydia hopes to extend the project to document innovations in safety, reliability and congestion, data usage, infrastructure resiliency, and smart transportation solutions. Getting out and talking to folks across the state is essential to the process, he notes.
“To bridge that communication gap I mentioned earlier, TTI is acting as a facilitator across traditional divisional and district lines. We’re helping Mary in Lubbock learn what John in Corpus Christi did to fix a problem they both share,” says Brydia.