(Editor’s Note: This feature appears in the January/February issue of Transportation Builder magazine, which this year is highlighting state transportation department leaders. These features are additions to our other ongoing information-sharing tools for the public and private sectors, including regional conference calls; the Planning & Design Division’s “Engineering Issues” events at the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) summer regional meetings; and ARTBA’s four regional meetings in the fall.)
Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) Director Brian Ness is responsible for an annual budget of nearly $700 million and provides leadership and vision for 1,700 employees. Last year, he was appointed to the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Executive Committee. He was 2017 chair of AASHTO’s Special Committee on Research and Innovation, and 2016 president of the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (WASHTO).
TB: One of major issues facing state transportation departments is the retirement of veteran leaders within the organizations. What you are doing in Idaho and throughout the western region to address this challenge?
NESS: We have several programs to address the loss of knowledge due to retirements at ITD. We double-fill positions to allow new employees to gain valuable knowledge, experience, and mentoring from employees before they retire. We have an Emerging Leaders Program to help employees develop their leadership skills and potential. ITD provides similar training for the Western Association of Transportation Officials’ Emerging Leaders Program for the 18-state region. The program has been so successful that it is being looked at as a model for the other AASHTO regions. As more of our workforce becomes eligible to retire, we have reduced layers of management and eliminated assistant manager positions. This allowed us to move positions and decision-making to the front lines and improved our performance measures, which we track on our website. For example, we cut vehicle title process time from nine days in 2014 to four days in 2018.
TB: What are the major trends in your state that the industry should be positioning for? For instance, do you see an increase in alternative delivery, such as design-build, P3, CMGC, etc.? How do you see the approach to risk evolving regarding these procurement methods?
NESS: We are working with the American Council of Engineering Companies and the Associated General Contractors of Idaho to redefine our project-delivery methods. ITD can use alternate delivery for up to 20 percent of our annual construction program. We have used design/build and the Manager/General Contractor process on a limited basis. We will match the goals of future projects with the benefits and risks of alternative delivery methods—with a focus on time savings and innovation. ITD has a State Tax Anticipated Revenue (STARS) program that attracts private businesses to Idaho by building requested infrastructure such as a new interchange. Companies can use 50 percent of their sales tax receipts to repay the costs over time. The program brings new tax revenue to Idaho, provides improvements to the transportation system, and allows companies to repay the cost of the infrastructure. Regarding risks, we strive to allocate them to the party best able to manage them. We review best practices and monitor research on risk performance for various delivery methods. Our risk-management methods continue to evolve as we gain experience managing alternative-delivery projects.
TB: What are some new technologies the ITD is implementing and the impacts they could have on safety, project delivery, or other areas of potential benefit in the future?
NESS: New technology helps ITD provide better services at lower cost. We have a program that improves our Road Weather Information System through a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They provide forecasts our crews use to make informed decisions on a storm-by-storm basis. This has allowed ITD to increase the time highways are clear of snow and ice “during” storms from 28 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2018. We use 3D and 4D design and automated machinery on projects such as the Thornton Interchange on U.S. 20 in east Idaho. Rather than placing stakes, contractors can program the heavy equipment to know what the grade needs to be. One negative issue we deal with is the federal restriction against testing patented technology. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices does not allow agencies to experiment with devices that are protected by a patent or copyright. We look forward to working with ARTBA as they lead the charge to repeal the federal regulation that prohibits state and local governments from using patented or proprietary products on highway and bridge projects that receive federal funding. This limits our ability to implement pilot projects to test new products or systems that can increase safety or improve traffic flow. It also hurts the economy by limiting transportation-related innovation in the private sector.
TB: How do you foresee changes in mobility impacting Idaho? For instance, does Idaho have any policies for automated vehicles? If so, how long do you think it will be before automated vehicles are on the road?
NESS: Automated technology will soon have a major impact on highway systems. Idaho has a committee with representatives from government and the private sector working on solutions to enable Idaho to safely test and deploy automated and connected vehicles on our highways. The committee in November submitted its first report to the governor addressing state and national policy, infrastructure, security, privacy, and vehicle testing and deployment. Two of our primary concerns are the rapid pace of implementation, and how to fund the infrastructure improvements needed to safely test and deploy the vehicles on Idaho roads.
TB: What is currently the largest or most interesting transportation infrastructure project in Idaho?
NESS: Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the nation, and we are doing all we can to address rapidly increasing traffic levels. The Karcher to Franklin Boulevard Project in southwest Idaho is widening I-84 to remove a major bottleneck on one of the most heavily traveled roads in the state. The approximately $150 million project is funded from many sources, including the cigarette tax, Idaho’s end-of-the year surplus revenue, Canyon County, the City of Caldwell, and a $90 million INFRA Grant from the Federal Highway Administration. During the past decade we have invested nearly $500 million to expand and improve the I-84 corridor to meet the needs of Idaho’s rapidly expanding economy.