The National Operations Center of Excellence’s Patrick Son explains the goals at the heart of Transportation Systems Management and Operations

The transportation industry is rife with acronyms. ITS, V2X, RUC, IoT… they’re everywhere and sometimes they’re easy to forget. But as transportation innovation continues accelerating, here’s one to remember: TSMO. Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) is a critical, but sometimes afterthought, discipline that exists where human ingenuity and advanced transportation technology meet for the benefit of the driving public.

Historically in the United States, the solution to congestion has been to add a lane or build a new road, but that’s expensive and in many cities we’re just out of room on the roadway. At the National Operations Center of Excellence (NOCoE), we’re encouraging smarter and more effective management and operations strategies to increase the capacity of existing streets and saving lives, time and money. That’s where TSMO comes in.

There’s some amazing work being done by practitioners at Traffic Management Centers, departments of transportation and by private consultants to reduce gridlock every day at a fraction of the cost when compared to building more lanes. Unfortunately, recognition of that work hasn’t kept pace with the revolution in transportation technology, which is a shame. At NOCoE, we’re setting the record straight because technology is only as good as the people using it.

For us, it began five years ago, when leading transportation groups including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) supported by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recognized the need to institutionalize TSMO. They collaborated to create the National Operations Center of Excellence. Each organization had been doing some of the work independently, but together, they had the foresight to recognize there was a vacuum in transferring knowledge, best practices and recognition to get the most out of our existing infrastructure in TSMO.

In the short period since, NOCoE has grown dramatically with increased practitioner participation and champions among state and local DOTs, along with a bevy of the nation’s leading private sector organizations joining the cause. We’re proud that the center has quickly become the go-to resource to find TSMO best practices, to share and discover relevant case studies and to network with others who are managing and operating America’s roadways. We’re proud of our work, but we’re even more proud of the work of our colleagues whose efforts are having a profound impact on roadway users everywhere but who up until now, had operated with little fanfare.

It’s no secret that day-to-day traffic operations can make or break the public’s confidence in its roadways. At the same time, TSMO is often at its best in a crisis. Lane reversals to evacuate traffic before a hurricane makes landfall? That’s TSMO. Routing traffic around and away from a hazardous material leak or train derailment – that’s TSMO.  That’s why we’re launching the first annual NOCoE TSMO Awards.  Our goal is to celebrate the use of TSMO, encourage its expansion throughout the United States, and share impactful and creative solutions. We hope that beyond holding a party and awarding trophies (which we will do at the 2019 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting next January), we’ll also elevate the conversation, provide replicable solutions and encourage others to share their ideas. So how can you participate?

NOCoE TSMO Awards are open to any city, county, MPO (RPO, COG), state DOT and private sector organization. From the submissions, independent expert judges will select winners in four primary categories:

1. Major incident or special event planning and response – Recognizing an agency or organization’s response to a specific incident or special event utilizing TSMO.
2. Improving your agency’s TSMO capabilities – Recognizing an agency or organization that has successfully integrated a Capability Maturity Model/Capability Maturity Framework (CMM/CMF) into its structure and the TSMO benefit that came from it.
3. Best TSMO project (creative solution) – Recognizing a successful “on the ground” project that demonstrates the solution(s) of improved system management and operations compared with traditional capacity-based approach.
4. Public Communications – Recognizing an agency for successfully increasing public or specific audience awareness of TSMO solutions and benefits.

Out of the winning submissions in the four categories, one entry will be selected as the overall winner and, additionally, judges will select one individual to be honored as the TSMO Champion of the Year.

Applicants should describe a TSMO project or strategy, implemented within the last five years that demonstrates transportation management or operations success in saving lives, time or money (individually or in combination), as well as the overall public, community, and industry impact. We’re encouraging practitioners and leaders at all levels of transportation operations to participate and hoping to draw the broadest possible range of worthy entries, but time is limited.

The deadline for submissions is Friday, October 19 with winners to be announced on the NOCoE website and in social media during the week of November 12.
If you visit the awards website (given at the end of this article) you’ll find greater detail and an example submission format, as well as a link to submit entries.

It’s just one way we’re promoting TSMO within the transportation community, but we’re also heavily involved in helping develop the next generation of practitioners by engaging with students before they ever hit the workforce.

Just this past August NOCoE, in partnership with US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO) Professional Capacity Building program, held the first ever Transportation Technology Tournament. It took place at ITE’s Annual Meeting and was designed to help students understand the communications, teamwork, planning and interdisciplinary skills required to work in the transportation industry. The tournament also helped them improve their presentation skills through feedback from DOT and industry executives that significantly improved from the dry-run to the actual competition presentation.

Earlier in the year, nine participant teams worked with local and state DOTs to identify a real-world challenge and use ITS technologies and TSMO strategies to develop solutions. The four finalists, Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo, Florida International, University North Dakota State University and a joint team from the University of Texas, University of Wyoming and the University of Kansas, went head-to-head with judges questioning each team, encouraging them to elaborate on their solutions, consider alternative strategies, and answer questions around procurements and costs of their solutions.

While the joint team won, we were incredibly impressed by all of the teams. We are continuing discussions with the state and local agencies and industry leaders with the hope that someday soon, we might see these students’ ideas on our nation’s roads.

We believe the marriage between technology and human ingenuity is the critical relationship in the future of transportation. While our organization is committed to advancing human inspired solutions and creativity, we all understand the crucial role of technology in the equation.

The success of NOCoE is not in our strategic plans or our peer exchanges and webinars. It is really driven by the Board of Directors and a Technical Advisory Committee that consists of the industry TSMO champions. From DOT CEOs and industry executives to district and TSMO division leaders, we have a collective ‘boots on the ground’ mentality to achieve the NOCoE mission of empowering TSMO practitioners with the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed. As practitioners, advocates and leaders, we must truly work together to get the most out of every ounce of potential on both the human and technical sides.  You may be familiar with a celebrated maxim popularized by President John F. Kennedy that says, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” At NOCoE, our goal is to be the transportation operations and management tide, so climb aboard. The SS TSMO is about to set sail.

Patrick Son is Managing Director of the National Operations Center of Excellence, based in Washington, DC