Maintaining Integrity

March 12, 2007

In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) celebrated 100 years as the agency tasked with building, maintaining and operating Virginia’s 57,800 miles of picturesque county roads and modern interstate highways. While VDOT leaders and staff statewide commemorated Virginia’s evolution from mud to mobility, work was well under way to map out VDOT’s journey into the 21st century.

In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) celebrated 100 years as the agency tasked with building, maintaining and operating Virginia’s 57,800 miles of picturesque county roads and modern interstate highways. While VDOT leaders and staff statewide commemorated Virginia’s evolution from mud to mobility, work was well under way to map out VDOT’s journey into the 21st century.

This includes one of the largest single modernization efforts in the agency’s history, the consolidation of 335 maintenance facilities into 248 locations and an institutional change expanding supervisors’ responsibilities and reducing overhead in the agency’s $1.5 billion maintenance program.

VDOT Commissioner David Ekern, who was tapped to lead Virginia’s transportation department in September 2006 after heading Idaho’s DOT for three years, is focusing VDOT toward the future. For a transportation veteran who began his career more than 35 years ago with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and has worked on survey crews, as a project manager, in field offices, in maintenance operations, planning, engineering, environmental and in the administrative and executive suites, modernizing an agency with a history as long as VDOT’s is not about abandoning the tradition, service, innovation and commitment that made it what it is today.

“We must learn from the past, integrate new technology and build upon things that work,” Ekern said. “This is a time where we must work to transform transportation from a collection of asphalt and bridges to a system of integrated transportation solutions encompassing a multimodal approach, embracing technology and advancing new business-like practices in the transportation industry.”

VDOT’s latest business plan includes work force development to update skills, changing an organization traditionally in charge of designing, building and maintaining the highway system to developing new business practices outsourcing construction, operations and maintenance to private-sector partners.

The plan also looks to employ new technologies and approaches to delivering customer service. These include the use of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) on major highway corridors to integrate electronic data collection and dissemination, institutionalizing the 5-1-1 traffic information system to provide real-time travel conditions to motorists and strengthening the agency’s emergency-response capability.

The third focus is reshaping and streamlining the nation’s third-largest state department of transportation. In the closing weeks of 2006, VDOT took a visible step in that direction as it embarked upon one of the largest internal realignments in the organization’s history.

An outsourcing outlook

“VDOT has been on a journey toward a new business model,” Ekern said. “Since 2002, we have implemented measures to create more than $250 million in annual internal cost reductions. This includes reshaping from 10,300 employees to 8,700, making our current number of employees below our 1965 staffing levels. In those 42 years, we increased the mileage of roads for which we are responsible from 49,800 miles to nearly 58,000 miles.

“The majority of our construction and interstate maintenance work is now outsourced to private-sector partners. We manage their work, but they complete the day-to-day operations. We will completely outsource all of our interstate maintenance by mid-2009. Our business continues to change, so the next critical step is to adapt our service-delivery structure to reflect these new ways of doing business.”

In late 2006, VDOT completed a nearly year-long effort to analyze administrative workload, population served, geographical and highway safety considerations for all areas serviced by VDOT maintenance facilities. The review was conducted by the Virginia Transportation Research Council, a partnership between VDOT and the University of Virginia. The Research Council examined the workload of maintenance supervisors and developed a standard response-time protocol to which all of VDOT’s maintenance facilities were compared.

That review identified areas where VDOT’s maintenance delivery structure could be modernized. Following the extensive review, VDOT determined that it could continue to provide sustained levels of service, retain emergency-response capabilities and provide the safest highway network using fewer maintenance facilities.

“We have looked at VDOT’s maintenance facility structure in the past, but this review really illustrated that we could make changes and dramatically improve our service delivery model,” said Dr. Gary Allen, VDOT’s chief of technology, research and innovation, who oversees the Research Council. “By focusing on the workload of the maintenance superintendent, supervisor and fiscal assistant, who are the administrators of each area headquarters, we were able to determine ways to expand the responsibilities for administrative teams to reduce overhead while ensuring service delivery.”

The main guiding principles of the study included rules that one area headquarters, or fully staffed maintenance facility, was retained in each of Virginia’s 95 counties. A response time of no more than 45 minutes to any area of the state in good weather was established as the baseline for level of service. Researchers then analyzed maintenance facilities statewide to assess workload, to develop scenarios for service delivery if facilities were consolidated and to assess the impact of any consolidations. Field staff was then engaged to ground test the methodology and help select potential candidates for consolidation.

Filling the need for emergency response

VDOT announced its proposed consolidation plan Nov. 2. The agency scheduled a series of 13 listening sessions around the commonwealth to gather feedback on the proposed plan. More than 1,000 people attended these meetings and more than 300 written and verbal comments were submitted to VDOT for consideration.

“The feedback we received showed us that now, more than ever, maintenance is more about emergency response than it is about filling potholes,” Ekern said. “Virginians view VDOT field staff who provide the day-to-day road maintenance as highly trained professionals who deliver a vital service to the residents of each community. Citizens regard VDOT as providers of important public safety services that are integral to economic vitality and safety for their communities, similar to services provided by fire and police departments. Most of the concerns that we heard were about how this change might impact the delivery of those vital services.”

Greg Whirley, VDOT’s chief deputy commissioner and the executive in charge of implementing the consolidation plan, explained that the public input process made a difference in how the agency implemented the consolidation. “We welcomed the public input we heard in November, as it confirms how much VDOT crews are valued in each community,” Whirley said. “We considered the thoughtful suggestions and made several strategic adjustments to our plan in response to valid business considerations raised during this review process.”

Changes between the proposed and final plan grew from additional data collected. Three main factors led to these changes:

  • Additional data analysis showed that service delivery times would exceed the prescribed 45-minute standard developed during the study;
  • In a few instances, the agency deviated from the guidelines set forth in the study in making its preliminary decisions; and
  • In other instances, field staff proposed consolidation actions that worked better than those included in the initial plan.

VDOT announced its final plan Dec. 14. It includes completely closing some facilities, converting some to storage areas or partially staffed facilities and creating a network of facilities designated as emergency staging areas. This new category of maintenance facility will be staffed for emergency-response and snow-removal operations, but will not be used for day-to-day operations.

Implementation has already begun. The consolidation of VDOT facilities will be completed by July 1, 2008.

This effort was not aimed at reducing front-line staff. The number of maintenance crew members statewide is not expected to change. Crew members in consolidated facilities will be redeployed to establish larger, more effective crews. The administration of these crews is what is being significantly altered. Crews will be managed by a smaller number of administrators whose span of responsibility will be increased to cover larger crews and more territory.

Stepping it up

“VDOT’s final consolidated structure meets the goals of streamlining operations, providing sustained levels of customer service and retaining emergency-response capability for all Virginians while reducing our overall number of facilities,” said Connie Sorrell, VDOT’s chief of system operations. “It also reduces the number of administrative positions in our maintenance organization. This move lets us focus additional resources on actual road management. It makes good business sense to address overhead-savings measures during this time of limited funding and the continuing trend toward outsourcing large portions of our work.”

For the better part of a century, VDOT has operated with a structure created before the advent of modern interstate highways, the creation of ITS and the rise of private contractors working to build public assets for a profit.

VDOT’s existing area headquarters configuration was established in the 1930s and augmented during the 1950s and early 1960s as Virginia completed its portion of the interstate system. Since then, VDOT’s business has evolved while technology and better equipment have changed the way the department builds, maintains and operates Virginia’s highway system. More work has been outsourced to the private sector. Equipment improvements have reduced the amount of time and number of crew members it takes to complete maintenance and construction tasks. Meanwhile, technology has made its impact on the industry. VDOT is adapting its maintenance facility structure to keep pace with these changes.

“VDOT will continue to improve how we operate and deliver services to the public,” Ekern said. “This maintenance facility consolidation is but one step on our journey toward accountability, transparency and efficiency. We continue to review our program delivery, operations, planning and administrative programs to find other ways that we can shape our business to serve 21st century demands.

“When all is said and done,” he said, “providing 21st century service from this new platform is still dependent upon professionals who are dedicated and committed to quality public service. It’s about skilled people serving the citizens of Virginia using new tools and partnership in smarter ways.”

About The Author: Caldwell is assistant director of public affairs for VDOT. For more information about VDOT, visit www.VirginiaDOT.org. on “About VDOT.”