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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Sept/Oct 1999

Managing Resources and Preparing for The Y2k Weekend

by John W. McCracken

Preparing for Contingencies

Almost everyone in the transportation community is very familiar with the year 2000 problem, or "Y2K." Computer systems around the world have been tested, and many Y2K-related problems have been identified and repaired. Nevertheless, now that the year 2000 is almost upon us, it is essential for the transportation community to conduct adequate contingency planning to prevent or minimize the effects in the event that Y2K problem-solving efforts fail, unforeseen problems develop, or transportation is affected by problems originating in other sectors of the economy, such as electric utilities. It also is critical that state and local governments build public confidence about Y2K preparedness within their communities.

Despite all previous and ongoing efforts, significant uncertainty remains regarding how computers and transportation systems will behave on Jan. 1, 2000. Although many jurisdictions and private sector companies have addressed their Y2K issues, others simply will not be prepared. Moreover, the inherent unknowns create concern among the public regarding whether and to what extent problems may be caused by Y2K. Some believe that Y2K will cause serious disruptions that may affect the safety of our transportation system, and others believe that any disruption will be minor and short-lived.

State and local governments have a significant role in managing the changeover. As operators of much of the nation's surface transportation system, they are in the best position to identify and address any Y2K-related problems that may occur. They also are in the best position to inform and assure the public that transportation systems will continue to be safe and reliable after the new year.

In July 1998, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), in partnership with 22 transportation associations and professional groups, sponsored the Intelligent Transportation Systems Y2K Summit. The summit brought together more than 150 transportation professionals to identify key issues and develop a plan for solving Y2K. Following that summit, U.S. DOT published "Steps for Action: Getting Intelligent Transportation Systems Ready for the Year 2000." This brochure served as a tool to help map Y2K problem-solving between July 1998 and Jan. 1, 2000. The entire text of the brochure is accessible (as a pdf file) on the Internet at (See "'Steps for Action' - Making Sure ITS Is Ready for the Year 2000" in the March/April 1999 issue of Public Roads.)

Over the last few years, a five-step approach has been generally accepted as the model Y2K remediation process:

  1. Awareness.
  2. Assessment.
  3. Renovation.
  4. Validation.
  5. Implementation.

    Most state highway agencies and companies are well along the way through these steps. It is hoped that the public sector will add two additional steps:

  6. Contingency Planning for the Y2K Weekend.
  7. Building Public Confidence Regarding Y2K Preparedness.

Both of these steps are critical for ensuring safe and efficient surface transportation operations before, during, and after the new year period.

Figure 1 - The Y2K transition event.

DOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) continue to conduct outreach activities for Y2K remediation. FHWA is also reaching out to help develop contingency plans in the event that Y2K repair efforts fail or that failures occur that are beyond the control of transportation operators. Prudent planning will address how transportation operators deal with electric or communication failures and how resources will be managed to ensure that problems can be identified and addressed.

Planning the Transition Event

In addressing these issues, FHWA has focused upon managing the Y2K "transition event." (See figure 1.)

Like many major events, Y2K has a life cycle. The cycle includes an initial recognition and planning period, the event itself, and some period afterward for follow-up and wind-down. Within the life cycle are periods in which intense planning is conducted for the event and any immediate responses to the event are recorded. These are represented by the yellow bars in figure 1. Finally, there is the event itself, which is depicted by the red bar and bisected by the white line, which represents 12 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000.

FHWA's most recent focus has been planning for the yellow and red bars - that is, planning how we will manage the change from 1999 to 2000 to ensure that transportation continues to be safe and efficient. However, the actions of state and local government agencies are the key to success. They own and operate most roadway and transit systems, and they are in the best position to monitor and report on those assets.

To develop contingency plans and build public confidence, state and local governments must understand where they might be vulnerable toY2K problems and how they can address those vulnerabilities. They must establish communications links with other government agencies, key suppliers, and the public, and they must work cooperatively to prepare for potential Y2K problems. They also need practical information to help manage resources for addressing Y2K in ways best suited for their own communities.

Figure 2 - The transportation emergency communications web.

Figure 2 illustrates the complexity of multiple communication channels that exist for the various agencies and organizations that communicate about Y2K.

FHWA provides outreach and technical assistance to encourage state and local governments to review their Y2K contingency and resource management plans to ensure that they are prepared for potential Y2K problems. FHWA is also encouraging state and local governments to develop regional Y2K partnerships and to communicate with the public regarding Y2K preparedness and potential Y2K problems.

Studying Vulnerabilities in Los Angeles

To develop a broader perspective on potential Y2K vulnerabilities, FHWA examined the Y2K vulnerabilities identified by the city of Los Angeles. Although Los Angeles identified vulnerabilities for all city functions - not just transportation - their results make an interesting study in understanding the challenge of managing the Y2K transition event.

Los Angeles grouped vulnerabilities into five general categories:

  • Immediate threat to public/health safety.
  • Potential threat to public health/safety.
  • Significant operational threat to one or more departments/agencies.
  • Limited operational threat to one or more departments/agencies or a revenue threat.
  • Minor inconvenience to departments/agencies or the private sector.

Los Angeles ranked supplier vulnerabilities, particularly electrical and communications problems, as high-priority vulnerabilities. For example, Los Angeles ranked inability to answer 911 calls and inability to dispatch units to life-threatening events as immediate threats to public health/safety. Potential threats to public health/safety included:

  • Widespread failure of the sanitation system.
  • Failure of the city radio system.
  • Widespread power failure.
  • Failure of the water distribution system.

Transportation problems and financial issues were identified primarily in the categories of significant operational threat and limited operational threat. Among the vulnerabilities identified as either significant or limited operational threats were:

  • Inability to fuel vehicle fleet.
  • Inability to perform vehicle maintenance.
  • Inability to process departmental fund transfers.
  • Inability to make timely payments on city's bond indebtedness.
  • Inability to process payroll.
  • Closure of city facilities not essential to public health and safety.
  • Failure of parking meters.

Finally, Los Angeles identified as a minor inconvenience the delayed access to records that are not essential to public health and safety.

Additional information about the Los Angeles study of vulnerabilities, including presentation materials, is available at

Building Public Confidence

Public officials have an obligation to assure the public that public agencies have acted with due diligence in preparing for Y2K. The following questions should be answered by public officials:

  • How will you instill confidence in your community that the transportation system is operating in a safe and routine manner before, during, and after the transition period?
  • What will you tell the community?
  • How will you deliver the message?

To build public confidence, emphasis has been placed upon preparation, planning, and communication. These actions include:

  • Preparation: Test all systems, repair where necessary, and validate that repairs were properly performed.
  • Planning: Have a solid contingency plan and exercise the plan to ensure that key staff understand what needs to be done and who is responsible for particular functions and activities.
  • Communication: Keep the public informed of preparation and planning activities through media events, press releases, Web pages, and other methods. Work closely with other jurisdictions and agencies.

Building Community Teamwork

FHWA encourages state and local agencies to consider three important themes: information, communication, and collaboration.

Public officials should understand how to improve ways of obtaining information about system status. This should include understanding what is going wrong, what might go wrong, and what is working well. This last point is critical. If reliance is placed on traditional approaches to information gathering, reports may be provided only when there are problems.

FHWA believes that Y2K is sufficiently unique that we should strive for regular system updates. Y2K problems could manifest themselves in subtle ways that are not immediately apparent. By developing reliable information about what is working, we hope to catch some of these problems early.

Public officials should also think broadly about communications within and across agencies and regions as well as with the public. The following are specific recommendations regarding public communications:

  • Communicate frequently and openly with the public.
  • Tell the public what is working well, what needs additional attention, and how the government plans to address potential problem areas.
  • Tell the public who is working on the problem and how the transition period will be managed.
  • Provide tips for citizens about preparing themselves for the transition.
  • Manage the media and information flow by scheduling media events to demonstrate Y2K preparedness and distribute a constant stream of press releases.
  • Educate employees about Y2K plans and actions so they can respond to public inquiries.
  • Put key Y2K information continuously on a Web page.
  • Hold community meetings with seniors and others who rely heavily on public transportation.
  • Develop frequently asked questions (FAQs) and update them frequently.
  • Put Y2K information in water and sewer bills and other regular government mailings.
  • Start working with the media now to develop a good working relationship on Y2K issues.

Finally, public officials should think broadly about ways to improve collaboration with other agencies, jurisdictions, the private sector, and any other groups that may be helpful in preparing for and managing the Y2K event.

John W. McCracken is the director of the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Research and Technology Services. Prior to joining FHWA's Research, Development, and Technology Service Business Unit in July 1999, he was the Y2K Outreach Team Leader in the Office of Operations Technology Services, which is part of FHWA's the Operations Core Business Unit. He was a traffic engineer in local government for 17 years before joining FHWA in 1991. Since joining FHWA, he has applied his expertise in traffic control systems by providing technical assistance in the transfer of technologies related to advanced traffic control and motor carrier operations. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Purdue University.