How Can State DOTs Prepare for Risk and Resiliency?

November 23, 2021
Mike Holder, PE &

Road Flooded sign and orange barriers blocking flooded road.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the more recent occurrences of social unrest, pandemic, and cyber threats have created unique challenges to state’s departments of transportation (DOTs) in maintaining reliability, continuity of operations, and good asset condition across multiple transportation modes.

A well-managed and connected transportation system is essential to preserving operability in all facets of our economy and society. Transportation is the backbone of state economies. It connects manufacturers with supply chains, consumers with products and tourism, and people with their workplaces, homes, and communities across urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. It’s more important than ever that state highway officials review their readiness to respond and recover from human-made or natural disasters. Whether a rockslide closes I-40 in the North Carolina mountains, a fire collapses a bridge carrying I-85 in Atlanta, or a hurricane causes widespread flooding, there are always challenges and opportunities that test agencies’ readiness and problem-solving abilities.

Minimize Risk

Agencies can minimize risk and reach greater levels of preparation by assessing their organizations and systems for vulnerability and resiliency readiness. State DOTs, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the Transportation Research Board have sanctioned and executed numerous research studies that provide a wealth of information and tools for enhanced preparation, prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery from disasters, emergencies, and security events. These studies assist in baselining readiness and provide recommended actions to improve and integrate resiliency across all business units of an agency, including planning, construction, maintenance, operations, and funding, and externally involve a diverse set of agencies and organizations.

Many transportation agencies such as the Washington State DOT, Colorado DOT, Florida DOT, Michigan DOT, and Missouri DOT have mature risk and resiliency programs, developing multi-faceted plans to harden transportation assets, ensure continuity of operations, and prepare action plans for implementation in the event of disasters or threats. At the virtual 2021 Spring AASHTO meeting, a peer exchange was held during which state highway executives and managers and an official from the Federal Highway Administration shared insights and thoughts relative to infrastructure resilience. A review of the discussions held indicates that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent across the country.

Human-made disasters are also increasing and pose threats including cybersecurity issues, terrorist activity, and accidents that cause critical infrastructure damage. Many state DOTs have developed resiliency planning and implementation with a valuation of improvement to the system being a foundational component. In other words, the additional costs of resilient design need to have a positive benefit.
Additional feedback from the exchange cautioned that incorporating resiliency principles is a long-term enterprise effort requiring the involvement of many and varied stakeholders to review risk and resiliency through a lens of overall agency and specific, project-level risk. Agency-level risks may involve labor force, technology adaptation, deployment, and finances. In contrast, common project-level risks involve extreme weather and hardening of assets for repair and recovery.

Looking at the Future

Reliable and accurate predictive tools are an essential resource in proactive planning and application of resiliency practice. It’s essential to build a culture that educates employees and stakeholders on the importance and value of resiliency. The free exchange of ideas and best practices among state DOTs and stakeholders is imperative to integrate resiliency practices into the entire lifecycle of a transportation asset. State DOTs have recognized that resiliency: “is as much a part of successful operation of their highway systems as other basic core functions.”

My former DOT in North Carolina recently published its first resilience report in March of 2021. Its introduction states: “The NCDOT is taking steps to incorporate Absorptive, Restorative, Equitable Access and Adaptive (AREA) capacity to prepare and respond to the threat of natural hazards and extreme events by focusing more coordinated efforts on transportation resilience. These efforts – initiated through a multi-disciplinary approach and stakeholder input – are captured in NCDOT’s Resilience Strategy Report (NCDOT Strategy). The NCDOT Strategy outlines existing initiatives and future short-, medium- and long-term steps to advance and deepen agency-wide resilience practice and capability.”

One of the current actions is the design and incorporation of resilient drainage systems and a raised profile grade into the design of the widening and reconstruction of I-95 in eastern North Carolina. These improvements will mitigate flooding occurrence and keep this strategic corridor open and operational for mobility and commerce during extreme weather events.

Resiliency Self-Assessment

In 2021, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program Research Report 970, “Mainstreaming System Resilience Concepts into Transportation Agencies: A Guide (2021), published a comprehensive report detailing a resiliency readiness scoring methodology and guide. The report includes a practical self-assessment tool organized around a resilience framework called the Framework for Enhancing Agency Resilience to Natural and Anthropogenic Hazards and Threats (FEAR-NAHT). The Framework has evolved through the experiences and lessons learned from many studies on system resilience and adaptive transportation system design. Its foundational premise is the consistently emphasized importance of adopting and using the appropriate tools, organizational structure, policy actions, processes, accurate data, robust performance measures, comprehensive work plans, and adequate funding to begin, nurture, and enhance transportation agencies’ resiliency efforts. The primary objective shapes and grows culture to where system resilience is normal business practice.

After the self-assessment tool has been applied, all functional areas within an agency having a role in fostering resilient transportation systems should be examined, and gaps in resilience capability identified. This self-assessment provides users with specific recommendations to enhance resilience activities within the agency and to strengthen partnerships with internal and external partners. The tool poses questions around ten capability factors, including assessing your current practice, implementing early wins, risk analysis, and monitoring and managing system performance. The tool provides state DOTs a structured methodology to benchmark their current readiness, organizational structure, communications plan, and other attributes and capabilities against current best practices. The report further includes suggested recommendations for specific actions to improve resiliency maturity that are detailed, definitive, and measurable. An illustrative example is included in the report for the Ohio DOT and its readiness to respond and mitigate seismic threats.

The resiliency mainstreaming guide referenced above is a comprehensive tool to provide transportation officials a real-time assessment of an agency’s efforts to integrate, prepare, and implement resiliency into their transportation systems. The mainstreaming of resilience concepts and activities into agency decision-making, policy, procedures, funding, and culture has become increasingly important as mobility needs increase and natural and human-induced disasters become more prevalent. Whether using this capability guide or another resource, it is critically vital that transportation agencies review all aspects of their Department’s business operations for resilience readiness. The resiliency of transportation systems is strategically important to the mobility, safety, and continuity of commerce and travel. The continued operability of all other sectors of our economy depends on an open, functioning transportation system that facilitates safe and reliable mobility under all circumstances.