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Public Roads - November/December 2004

November/December 2004
Issue No:
Vol. 68 No. 3
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Regional Collaboration to Improve Safety, Reliability, and Security

by Wayne Berman and Robin Mayhew

The transportation system can benefit from a strong link between planning and operations.

On an August afternoon in 2003, four vehicles collided on Interstate 5 near Olympia, WA, requiring the Washington State Patrol to close the freeway temporarily. Although it took several hours to clear and investigate this very serious crash, an exceptional amount of regional coordination and cooperation reduced the traffic impacts significantly.

A coalition of State and local police, fire, and public works officials recently had created a major plan for incident detours for I-5. The detour plan for this section of the interstate included detailed routes and agreed upon agency roles and responsibilities. So when the crash occurred, the detour plan was put into effect, enabling the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to work with local officials to detour traffic through local streets and back onto I-5.

(Above) A crash in Washington State required detouring traffic for several hours. Rerouting traffic, cleaning up a fuel spill, and clearing the incident required coordination between the Washington State Patrol and WSDOT's Incident Response Team, among others. Photo: WSDOT.

The Washington State Patrol and WSDOT also consulted with firefighters and the medical examiner's office and quickly agreed to a plan that expedited the scene investigation and increased privacy for the crash victims. The cooperation and coordination these agencies displayed in investigating the crash and rerouting to the detour kept traffic moving while the crash was being cleared, and the highway opened at least 2 hours sooner than it otherwise would have opened.

This level of collaboration toward a common goal can be the norm rather than the exception. "We get people together and identify the problem—partners such as fire departments that we'd never dealt with or spent a lot of time with in the past," says Toby Rickman, traffic engineer at WSDOT. "Once they're part of the process and brought in to help solve the problems, we're finding that they're keenly interested."

As the Nation's traffic systems become stretched to their limits, it is increasingly important to improve their operations by making elements work in harmony. Improving information systems, such as those found in intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies, can help. But it is even more critical to enable agencies and jurisdictions responsible for the day-to-day operation of transportation systems to work together through enhanced levels of collaboration and planning.

In Baltimore, MD, a meeting of the Regional Operations Coordination Committee to discuss the Contingency Transportation Emergency Management Plan includes representatives from the Baltimore City Fire Department, Maryland Emergency Management Agency, Howard County Department of Police, Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Transportation Authority Police department, and Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Interest at the National Level

Several national efforts have focused on linking planning and operations. For example, at the National Dialogue on Transportation Operations Summit, held in Columbia, MD, in October 2001, an important theme was how to improve planning for operations to ensure safe, reliable, and secure transportation. The summit brought together more than 240 professionals representing academia, planning, engineering, safety, transit, bicyclists, pedestrians, freight, and elected and appointed government officials.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also sponsored a Planning and Operations Working Group. During 2000 and 2001, the group met three times to envision how transportation planning and transportation operations can work together more collaboratively. The participants included professionals in transportation operations, planning, and public safety from all levels of government.

Transportation legislation supports the linking of planning and operations. For example, the proposed reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) includes a section on "Transportation Systems Management and Operations" that emphasizes collaboration to improve regional transportation. The metropolitan and statewide planning processes, as mandated in U.S. Code (Title 23, Sections 134 and 135), also call for stronger consideration of management and operations in the transportation planning process.

Regional Challenges

Generally, two primary groups conduct planning to improve transportation operations: transportation planners who help decide how to allocate resources and operations managers responsible for the day-to-day operation of transportation systems. Operators and planners are sometimes viewed as entities from different worlds with different timeframes, perspectives, and needs. Typically the relationships between operators and planners are limited and may occur only when there is a special event, crisis, or short-term project.

In Colorado, skiers can go online to check road conditions by clicking on this map before they head out to their favorite slopes. Developing and sharing roadway and weather information typically requires considerable collaboration and planning between transportation, public safety, and other agencies.

The challenges are to sustain and expand the relationships between operators and planners. Collaboration is particularly critical in metropolitan regions and congested corridors where numerous jurisdictions, agencies, and service providers are responsible for safely and efficiently operating various aspects of the transportation system. Not only are the roadway and transit system operators themselves dependent on the transportation system, but so are police, fire, and medical services; emergency response and homeland security systems; and port authorities.

Major misunderstandings may occur between police officers and transportation operators. Eileen Singleton, senior transportation engineer for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, describes how police and transportation entities may have different objectives when attending to a roadway incident. "Law enforcement needs to conduct an investigation if an incident is a crime scene," she says. "So the police may need to move methodically to make sure that any evidence is safe before things are moved. Whereas transportation operators may want to move everything out of the way, clear things, and get the road open as soon as possible."

Regional Operations

Regional collaboration is also critical because many programs and strategies have regional impacts. They include incident management programs, traveler information systems, emergency management systems, roadway weather response plans, and electronic toll collection systems. To be effective, these regional activities typically depend upon considerable collaboration and planning between transportation, public safety, and other agencies.

FHWA coined the phrase "planning for operations" to describe the planning and collaboration required to improve regional operations. Planning for operations requires three related but distinct elements: sustaining regional collaboration for operations, enhancing the transportation planning process, and strengthening the linkage between operations and planning.

Regional collaboration—the first key element of planning for operations—consists of developing and sustaining unprecedented levels of teamwork and partnership between transportation systems operators. Although agencies, jurisdictions, and systems operators will continue to operate and maintain their own facilities and services, they need to collaborate more to improve regional system performance. This collaboration is especially needed when the strategies must cross agency and jurisdictional lines to be effective. Effective regional collaboration for operations may include the following:

  • Acknowledging the benefits of working together across traditional boundaries to manage and operate the transportation system
  • Sharing real-time information to support operations
  • Developing performance measures that reflect customer needs and expectations

Deliberate and sustained collaboration requires a framework of five key elements: structures, processes, products, resources, and the performance measures needed to gauge success. The framework helps to institutionalize collaboration as a way of doing business among transportation agencies, public safety officials, and other public and private sector interests within a region. These framework elements are interactive and evolving.

Transportation Planning Process

The second element of planning for operations, the transportation planning process, results in increased consideration of transportation operational investments within the regional transportation planning and decisionmaking process. This transportation planning process may be realized through the following:

  • The regional transportation plan adequately considers impacts on regional operations.
  • Transportation system operators participate in planning and investment decisions.
  • Investment decisions optimize the balance of operational and capital improvements.
  • An annual report on the regional transportation system monitors the performance of the system. Performance measurement, fundamental to both the transportation planning process and regional operations activities, serves as a critical element for understanding and improving the operation of the transportation system. Linking planning to operations requires effective performance measures that communicate the benefits of operational improvements to decisionmakers in terms that are understandable to the traveling public. Additionally, performance measures can illuminate the need for additional regional collaboration and coordination and areas for system improvement. When decisionmakers understand the benefits of investments in regional system operations, the planning process can be used to prioritize operational investment strategies.
A staff member with the Utah Department of Public Safety operates a regional traffic operations system.
To sustain itself, regional coordination needs a framework that creates institutional structures through which processes occur that result in products. A commitment of resources is needed to initiate and sustain regional coordination and to implement agreed-upon solutions and procedures. The collaborative spirit is motivated by a desire for measurable improvement in performance of the regional transportation system.

Linkage Between Operations and Planning

The third element of planning for operations, the linkage between operations and planning, establishes a regional forum for transportation planning and operations, and can result in strategies for collecting and sharing data and information. This linkage may be realized through some of the following actions:

  • Establishment of an ongoing regional forum for transportation operations
  • Development of regional operational performance measures that reflect the goals and objectives of the transportation system
  • Preparation of a regional concept for transportation operations, which serves as a guide for investment in and development of regional operations
  • Development of a strategy for collecting and sharing data among agencies and jurisdictions in a region
  • Development and implementation of regional projects that are effective only when agencies and jurisdictions work together
In Colorado, most transit facilities and many public buildings have traveler information kiosks, such as this one, where travelers can check route and schedule information, view maps, and plan trips. Here, Rhonda Okomoto uses a kiosk at the Jefferson County Human Services Building.

The final item—regional projects-may include systems or services for traffic incident management, advanced traveler information, congestion management, work zone management, roadway weather notification, and emergency response.

Operational data on congestion and travel times are critical to operators, planners, and travelers using transportation systems. "The planners are interested in congestion data from a system utilization point of view," says Rickman. "But the users are interested in travel time data so that they can make choices about how to travel. And people who operate the transportation system need this information so we can control the system by adjusting ramp meters, for example, or retiming traffic signals."

FHWA's Joint Pathway

The FHWA Office of Operations and the Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty are working together to carry out a 3- to 5-year joint program to advance planning for operations. Called the Joint Pathway, the program will carry out initiatives, actions, and activities that fall into three categories: awareness and outreach, development and delivery, and showcasing of best practices. The Joint Pathway will conduct outreach and provide technical assistance to increase stakeholder awareness and motivation.

FHWA had two goals in mind in creating the Joint Pathway: to enhance regional planning and operations, and to enhance the decisionmaking processes so that investments in operations are on par with investments in construction and preservation.

Some major activities of the Joint Pathway include:

  • Conducting a training course on the three key elements of planning for operations
  • Publishing guidance reports, such as Regional Transportation Operations Collaboration and Coordination, available at
  • Conducting a demonstration project to explore new approaches to regional operations collaboration and coordination
  • Developing notable practice case studies to showcase lessons learned

The greatest challenge in "planning for operations" is creating an environment that supports ongoing collaboration and coordination to improve regional operations. Incorporating "planning for operations" and the corresponding collaboration into the culture of transportation institutions will fulfill a wide range of regional goals and will become a vital element in policy and programs.

"Operational programs, policies, and improvements are essential to sustaining the vitality of a region in the face of growing transportation demand," says FHWA Associate Administrator for Operations Jeff Paniati. "To be truly effective, they must be planned for in a collaborative manner, and they must receive sufficient funding over a long timeframe. Only in this way can we expect to realize and sustain an improved level of performance on our Nation's transportation systems."

"Planning for Operations" in Practice

A number of metropolitan areas and States are applying the three key elements of planning for operations. Here are three examples.

Regional Operations—LifeLink Project Saving Lives Through a Traffic Operations Center. The city of San Antonio, TX, is using a combination of wireless and fiber-optic links to give emergency room doctors a look at patients while they are still in ambulances en route to the hospital.

"By overlaying TxDOT's [Texas Department of Transportation] TransGuide communication system, LifeLink connects an emergency room physician with a moving EMS [Emergency Medical Services] ambulance," says Patrick Irwin, P.E., director of transportation operations for the San Antonio District of TxDOT. "Now the physicians are viewing the patient with high-end video. They're looking at how the patient is responding, at pupil dilation, and talking to the patient. And using the same communication system, the physician is viewing data coming in from the patient, such as respiration and heartbeat. Again using the same communication system, the physician can consult privately with the paramedic regarding treatment of the patient."

In San Antonio, TX, an EMS paramedic is transmitting a patient's vital statistics to a nearby hospital so physicians can assist while the ambulance is en route to the hospital.

LifeLink relies on the communications backbone that supports the ITS traffic management system in San Antonio, which was developed as part of FHWA's Model Deployment Initiative Program. The system overcame significant institutional and operational challenges to integrate transportation agencies and emergency service providers, who have very different operating philosophies, budgets, priorities, and constituents.

"We worked closely with the San Antonio Fire Department, which operates the EMS ambulances, and Southwest Research Institute, which developed LifeLink" says Irwin. "And we had extraordinary support from Dr. Donald Gordon, M.D., who is the EMS medical director here in San Antonio. He is a visionary physician, very much interested in rural applications of telemedicine."

"The fact that we in transportation could have birthed an outside-the-box program that has so many positive ramifications for travelers is very exciting," says Irwin.

Transportation Planning Process-The Baltimore Regional Operations Coordination (B-ROC) Project. The B-ROC Project was initiated based on a recommendation by the Metropolitan Baltimore ITS Partnership to the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board, which is the metropolitan planning organization for the Baltimore region. B-ROC first met in September 2000 to focus on enhancing traffic management operations through coordination among jurisdictions, agencies, modes, and facility types. B-ROC addresses coordination issues for incidents and congestion without boundaries, resolves conflicting goals and missions among operating agencies, enhances mutual support and resource sharing among agencies, and identifies lines of authority.

"Our effort has helped responders to realize what resources are available to help," says Singleton. "Sometimes the police or firefighters haven't been aware that the State highway department can come and direct traffic, for instance. So the police officers and firefighters can call on them and do what they need to do without worrying about traffic."

B-ROC has formalized regional cooperation through a Memorandum of Regional Cooperation to encourage agencies to notify others about incidents that could affect other agencies or jurisdictions. "This will be implemented at the dispatch center level," says Singleton. "When a local police dispatch or 911 center receives information about an incident that could affect the State transportation network, the local jurisdiction would contact the State through the statewide operations center to let them know about the incident. If the State has an incident that could affect the local roads, the statewide operations center will contact the local jurisdiction's center."

When Washington State's policymakers understood the amount of congestion caused by incidents, they provided greater levels of support for WSDOT's Incident Response Teams, such as the team shown attending to this crash involving a truck.

Sometimes even small efforts at coordination can help considerably. "One issue that came up at a B-ROC meeting was the length of time it can take to clear a fatal incident," says Singleton. "Depending on when the medical examiner is called and where they are coming from, it could take up to several hours to reach the incident scene. Then once the medical examiner gets there, they have to start gathering the data they need. So we developed a form that lists the information that the medical examiner needs. This form can be filled out by a police officer while he or she is waiting for the examiner. So it helps speed up clearance of an incident once the medical examiner gets there."

Linkage between Planning and Operations— Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Focusing on the Customer. As part of WSDOT's efforts to define performance measures for traffic congestion, the agency moved beyond traditional measures of average travel speeds to define measures focused on travel reliability. Planners and operators collaborated to develop the measures, which involve ongoing coordination in tracking performance. Some of WSDOT's performance measures included travel time and system reliability.

WSDOT publishes a quarterly report on the State's transportation system titled Measures, Markers, and Mileposts. This report highlights the status of current projects, details where transportation funds are being used, and updates progress on management and operations measures such as incident clearance time and travel information provision. WSDOT has found the customer-oriented performance measures to be very effective in drawing attention to the benefits associated with its transportation investments and in building credibility for the agency.

Toby Rickman, traffic engineer at WSDOT, provides evidence of the value of developing performance measures that people can understand. "We provided information to policymakers and the public on the amount of congestion that is caused by incidents as opposed to too much traffic," says Rickman. "We find that about half of the congestion out there is because of incidents, such as somebody's stalled vehicle or debris in the roadway, or crashes. And when people understood that, we had a substantial increase in investment in incident response because people understood its worth."

Wayne Berman is a transportation specialist with FHWA's Office of Operations. He is responsible for developing, encouraging, and guiding more effective planning for operations within both the operations and planning communities. He has been with FHWA for more than 29 years and has held positions in the Offices of Planning and Traffic Operations and Safety before his present position. Berman received a bachelor of science in civil engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and a master of science in civil engineering, with specialties in transportation planning and traffic engineering, from the University of Maryland. He is active in the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Association for Commuter Transportation, and the Transportation Research Board.

Robin Mayhew is a community planner in FHWA's Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty. Mayhew has 12 years of diverse experience in transportation planning, including service in the public and private sectors. Prior to joining FHWA, she worked for the Federal Transit Administration in Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, DC. In Denver, CO, she was executive director of Transportation Solutions, a transportation management association, and transportation director of the Southeast Transportation Management Organization. Mayhew also has worked for three Washington, DC, transportation consulting firms and has served as a transportation planner for the Delaware Department of Transportation (DOT). She obtained a bachelor of science in community and family services and a master's of public administration from the University of Delaware. She also served in the General Assembly as a legislative fellow and a governor's management fellow. Mayhew is a member of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, American Planning Association, American Institute of Certified Planners, and the Women's Transportation Seminar.

For more information on planning for operations, visit or