Guest post: CDOT meeting looks to the future

By Michelle Scheuerman

Colorado Executive Director of Transportation Don Hunt had a feeling some pretty forward-thinking ideas could come out of the Futurist Forum the agency held earlier this month with senior CDOT management.

“We rarely get to step away from everyday concerns and let loose thinking about the future of our industry,” Hunt said. “But we’re also facing some big questions. What are our capacity needs? Can we maintain what we’ve built? What if technical innovations exceed what we can even imagine today? How can we position our organization to succeed, over the next five years and the next 50 years? We need to amplify the conversation.”

The day-long workshop included mentions of cloud seeding, micro transport, and delivery drones. But while some of the topics seemed science-fiction, the effort was grounded by the main issue: how does the industry predict and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow, when those challenges (and the tools and technology to address them) are likely dramatically different than the ones of today? While it’s valuable to consider these questions for the decades ahead, the forum also highlighted the need to evaluate and realign some thinking in the shorter-term as well.

Participants considered how shifting demographics—including the rise of Millennials and a return to the urban core, increased telecommuting, and a greater reliance on mass transit could impact driving habits and thus congestion and capacity. A similar discussion focused on how 3-D printing and other advanced technology could make manufacturing a more local endeavor, impacting freight movements.

Another topic was extreme weather, which CDOT officials have become increasingly familiar with over the years. If agencies can monitor and predict weather events—their likely locations and possibilities of recurrence—is there a better path for reconstruction?

Consulting firms GBSM, CDM-Smith, and Burns & McDonnell helped coordinate the workshop. Burns & McDonnell Senior Strategic consultant Julie Lorenz is helping other DOTs address similar issues through NCHRP 20-83 and points out that DOTs are beginning to consider the tipping point. “Conversations are starting to focus on how the industry can avoid doubling-down on yesterday’s needs,” she said.

“Foresight can be short-sighted if you apply today’s solutions to tomorrow’s problem, and our industry has to be cautious of that,” said Hunt. “We don’t have the answers yet, but it’s a win if we’re thinking about the larger context before we make decisions.”

Michelle Scheuerman is Statewide Planning Director at CDOT