State and local government transportation authorities are experiencing a historic moment of change. After the pandemic decimated revenues for transit and transportation, state and local leaders now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in transportation, thanks to funding from the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

State officials talked about their plans to put that money to work at a Feb. 22 virtual event organized by Government Technology on the “Future of Transportation – Using Federal Funds to Modernize, Innovate, and Reimagine Transportation.” The event was moderated by our old friend Teri Takai – former CIO of both California and Michigan – who was joined on a panel by Bill Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation and Lori Pepper, deputy secretary for Innovative Mobility Solutions at the California State Transportation Agency.

Their discussion focused on how state and local leaders are approaching, prioritizing and operationalizing the use of newly available Federal funding made possible through the IIJA, and the top technology priorities these agencies will address with IIJA funding.

Panos kicked the panel off by describing what he sees as the major challenges facing these organizations today, and how technology will be applied to meet them.

“It means different things for different organizations,” he explained. “If you’re a state department of transportation, and you’re in California, it means one thing; if you’re in state department of transportation and you’re in Colorado, or you’re in Arizona, it means something different. And if you’re a county or you’re a city government or regional, authority it means something altogether different.”

He did emphasize one aspect that seems to be universal: they all welcome the Federal attention, and especially the dollars.

“We welcome the opportunity for us to begin the process around thinking about how we are going to apply these resources in the most efficient way, to the most needed things, and in the most innovative way. The technology issues are significant, and they permeate almost everything that we do,” Panos said.

Panos is excited to see how it plays out, since the impressive infrastructure that transportation agencies have created over the last few decades in the United States will now be enhanced with the technology and with the innovation that’s now available.

“It’s the right time,” he said adding, “the technology is ready. The citizens are wanting highways to be more connected, and safer, and roads, bridges and rail ports to be more connected and safer. And so that’s the next big trend for all of us in transportation.”

New Purposing

Pepper, the California deputy secretary for Innovative Mobility Solutions, chimed in with her current role and experience. “The first year was basically focusing on the mission of applying technology and best practices to the transportation ecosystem in order to ease mobility throughout the entire state,” she said. A lot of that work, she said, was not focused on what’s new and shiny, but on assessing current assets and determining how they can be used more efficiently and effectively.

“That’s one thing I would just encourage everyone to do,” Pepper said. “You don’t always have to go out and find the latest innovation, going out and buying something new. It’s just adjusting how you are viewing your existing assets.”

Takai raised the Federal funding issue and the challenges posed by monies that are spread across a number of different buckets for state and local government entities. “How do you see all these entities looking to utilize that funding,” she asked.

“One of the greatest opportunities is to modify the process in order to have better relationships and get the solutions out there to more people in a faster manner,” Pepper said, adding it will be important at the state level to create more enterprise solutions and options. “We have more than 400 transit agencies in California. They are all independent, and most of them have very small staffs. Even if their title is General Manager, they’re still probably driving the bus.”

Consequently, the leadership and staff of these smaller entities don’t have the opportunity to sit down and do business development, procurement or all the other non-operational aspects that are so important. “We see that we can do some of that at the state level, and take the burden off to provide options so that some of these local agencies and local governments can see what’s possible, where they just don’t have the time or the resources to do some of that work themselves,” Pepper said.

From Mowers to Drones

Focusing on some of the new technologies, Panos explained, “We’re working with the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University on an innovative incubator called Grand Farm.” North Dakota has large agriculture industry that generates a very significant part of the state’s GDP.

“Grand Farm is an incubator for new technology and so we’re having them work with some of the suppliers of large agricultural equipment to develop autonomous mowers,” Panos said.  Transportation agencies mow along the sides of highways all over the country, and if they can come up with a suitable, deployable automated mowing technology, that will allow them to do more with less people. “And frankly, it will create a better safety environment around our highways for our workers and the public,” he said.

North Dakota, like many states, also is working on unmanned aerial systems. “This is the future for us – photogrammetry for surveying, for inspection, for emergency response for flood management, and for snow and ice control. We can get these vehicles with sensing packages up in the air,” Panos said.

These aerial systems become extremely effective very quickly and can be deployed anywhere in the state, he said. “I mean we can go on and on. This could be an entire topic for another webinar about what creative technologies are already doing in transportation and how they can be accelerated forward,” Panos said.

Perhaps there will be a sequel.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.