Framing resilience for state DOTs

By Michael Brenneis

The mission of many state DOTs has evolved beyond the traditional “highway department” to include protecting the quality of life of the people of a given state, and the integration of all travel modes to safely move people and goods. Resilience has come to mean more than the quick and cost-effective restoration of roads after a disaster. Acknowledging this, a new paper in Transportation Research Part D focuses on resilience in theory and practice, and explores a framework for the discussion of resilience within state DOTs and the development of resilience strategies.

As quoted in the paper, the National Institute of Standards and Technology defines resilience in this context as  “…the ability to minimize the costs of a disaster, to return to a state as good or better than the status quo ante, and to do so in the shortest feasible time.” In addition, the authors highlight the importance of focusing beyond short-term resilience onto long-term resilience goals. For example, there is a potential trade-off made by choosing to protect road assets in vulnerable places rather than investing in transit or other modes to both enhance accessibility and shift away from higher emission-producing vehicles.

The responsibilities of state DOTs have expanded from highway engineering and construction to, as the authors describe, “multimodal agencies with roles in financing, planning, safety, freight, economic development, and environmental protection, among other responsibilities.” With this comes more exposure to the disruptive threats of rising sea level, extreme weather, terrorism, and aging infrastructure—and, as state DOTs continue to be involved with rapidly evolving technology, cyber-attack.

If state DOTs are focused on building highways, [then] a focus on design engineering makes sense; however, if state DOTs play a larger role in the mobility of people and goods across many modes, resilience needs to take on not just the design engineering approach, but also the emergency management and climate, community and societal dimensions as well.

Considering this, the authors advance a framework, based on literature review, that could be used by state DOTs as a guide to develop resilience strategy and practices, as follows:

  • Resilience efforts should match state DOTs’ assets and responsibilities. Increasing network redundancy by adding modes could benefit resilience.
  • Short-term resilience goals should be coordinated with long-term goals, so that short-term mitigations do not counteract long-term goals as discussed above.
  • Planning to mitigate risks should receive the same priority as everyday needs and operations.
  • Adopting a layered approach whereby needs are grouped by goals, objectives, and metrics, can encourage resilience. Each layer can have its own perspective on resilience. A more detailed explanation of this approach can be found in the paper.
  • Examining the geographic or modal isolation of DOT divisions could lead to more consistent resilience outcomes if changes to organizational structure would enable a more collaborative approach to resilience.
  • Being funded by gas taxes may not be sustainable. Looking for alternative funding mechanisms could make state DOTs more financially resilient, and more able to dedicate resources to preemptive resilience efforts.

For those state DOTs that haven’t done so already, a focus on resilience may lead them to redirect their attentions from building and maintaining roads, to safely moving people and goods using the mode that has the greatest societal benefit. Increasing accessibility and mobility by adding network redundancy and focusing on transit, walking, and cycling are also potential side benefits.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.