As I write this column on a warm April Wednesday, I have now served as the director of the Tennessee Transportation Assistance Program for a grand total of 110 days. The shift from technical assistance coordinator to director has produced a surprising change in my perspective. My nineteen years with the program have given me great familiarity with TTAP's ongoing training, technical assistance, and technology transfer activities, leading me to believe that this would be an easy transition. What I failed to recognize was the difference between implementing a great plan and assuming responsibility for keeping this plan relevant in the coming years.
With this new perspective, I find myself looking for topics and trends which may impact transportation professionals across the state. Autonomous vehicles are at the top of this list. While technology has advanced to the point that cars can operate without human input in many roadway environments, there are still obstacles that must be addressed before I can count on sleeping all the way from Knoxville to Nashville. I have seen a few news articles lately where auto industry executives identify poorly-maintained, missing, or inconsistent traffic control devices as one of the big problems facing their products. This may be true, but how do we address these issues in a time when transportation funding is not keeping pace with our infrastructure needs? Will the desire (or need) for autonomous vehicles lead to increased funding or a shift in emphasis for transportation agencies? How will technology change our roadways and communities in the future? Only time will tell, but it's not too early to ask these questions.
Many communities and organizations are already changing the way that they view streets and highways. This shift was obvious as I reviewed the technical program for the 2016 annual meeting of the Southern District of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (held earlier this month in Nashville). All of the "traditional" transportation engineering topics, including traffic signals, intersection and interchange design, travel demand models, and horizontal curve safety, were present. However, a heavy dose of "new" topics was mixed in with these mainstays. Terms like "complete streets," "road diets," "pedestrians," and "transit" were equally represented. As I reviewed this agenda it dawned on me that this is not the same industry that I entered way back in 1997. Transportation engineering has changed for the better, but along the way it has become more complex than ever before.
These issues are certainly relevant, but there is much more happening out there in the real world. My goal for the remainder of 2016 is to get out more often by participating in meetings, conferences, and training sessions so that I can learn more about the issues that are influencing the way you do business. If I do not cross paths with you at one of these events, I would still like to know what is on your mind. Please give me a call or send me an email if there is anything that TTAP can do to help you through its training or technical assistance programs.
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