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The Best Ideas from 2021 and Who’s Implementing Them

Welcome to the latest issue of The Districts, where we chronicle the people, issues and activities impacting special districts across the U.S.

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The 2021 Special Districts Year-in-Review and Recognition Summit brought together an all-star group of special district leaders and industry experts for an interactive conversation on modernizing internal operations, improving constituent services and navigating uncertain times. The virtual event broke down important trends, shared great ideas and offered practical suggestions – all focused on making districts more efficient and effective.

The event honored 45 special districts who received 2021 Technology Innovation Awards, including our first-ever District of the Year recipient: The San Joaquin (California) Regional Transit District. Here are some highlights from our award winners:

  • The San Joaquin Regional Transit District — which provides bus service to the city of Stockton, Calif., and surrounding communities – tapped into funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act to backfill a 75 percent drop in farebox revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic while it redesigns transit services for the future. Among other things, the district launched a series of pilot projects that ultimately will help it design new transit routes and service offerings to fit a post-pandemic world. It also began a first-of-its-type Next-Generation Transit Study to better understand current and future transportation needs.
  • The New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state public power utility in the United States, is expanding its use of data analytics to gain new operational insights. NYPA recently launched a data analytics platform that provides clean and normalized enterprise data gathered from a variety of sources across the organization. The platform gives data scientists, engineers and other users a common source of data for creating predictive models, visualizations, reports, dashboards and other valuable tools. NYPA is now using the platform to support predictive analytics projects to improve power delivery to customers. For instance, NYPA is developing models that predict the most efficient and reliable way to deliver power generated upstate to users in New York City. It’s also analyzing heat images from infrared cameras to spot potential transformer explosions before they happen.
  • Metroparks Toledo — which manages 12 parks covering 12,000 acres in the Toledo, Ohio, area -- developed creative ways to connect with residents when traditional parks programs were shut down due to the pandemic. Although visits to parks grew dramatically during the pandemic lockdown, traditional in-person programs and interactions between park staff and patrons were suspended. So, the district engaged residents in a variety of new ways from producing a series of “Nature Nuggets” videos -- covering everything from fishing for Walleye in the Maumee River to identifying types of trees – to organizing online scavenger hunts.
  • The Lower Colorado River Authority, a Texas public utility that generates electric power from a series of dams on the Colorado River, took a holistic approach to transitioning staff to remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization set up sites at several of its larger locations where employees could pick up a complete package of equipment -- laptops, monitors, keyboard, mice -- to support the new work-from-home model. On the back end, LCRA expanded its use of cloud-based email and video collaboration platforms, beefed up network capacity and implemented multi-factor authentication. The authority also adopted a variety approaches -- including mobile hotspots and Wi-Fi amplifiers -- to improve internet connectivity for employees who live in rural areas of the state.

Meet all out 2021 Award Winners

Need a little more inspiration? Check out the full list of 2021 Technology Innovation Award Winners. You’ll find tons of innovative ideas submitted from water, power and wastewater utilities; transit authorities; parks and library districts; and many more. Here’s a sample:

California’s Costa Mesa Sanitary District (CMSD) uses artificial intelligence to inspect more than 5,000 manhole covers throughout its sewer network. Vehicle-mounted cameras capture video images of sewer manhole covers, which are then uploaded to the cloud. Machine learning software analyzes the video, inspecting the condition of each manhole cover and identifying those in need of repair. Compared with traditional physical inspections, the new method saves $40,000 annually and increases the frequency of inspections, CMSD says. It also eliminates the need for CMSD employees to conduct inspections on busy streets, improving safety.

District Spotlight: Historic Transportation Investment

U.S. Department of Transportation officials began laying out how the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will inject billions of dollars into public transit systems and other transportation projects over the next five years.

“This is, I think, a transformational moment in American transportation,” U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg told reporters during a Nov. 9 media briefing on the recently passed federal infrastructure package. The legislation will send $90 billion to public transit, “the largest investment in transit in U.S. history,” Trottenberg said. It will allow for the replacement of some 1,800 subway, light-rail and commuter rail cars and swap out 10,000 fossil fuel-powered buses for zero-emission models, among other improvements.

The funding — which will be funneled through a range of grant, pilot and related programs — is envisioned as a once-in-a-generation move to not only shore up aging transit systems, but reposition the nation’s priorities around transportation, placing climate change and social equity at the moral and philosophical center.

Read the full story.

More Articles Worth a Read

Here are more stories from special districts around the country. Share your own news with us for inclusion in the next newsletter.

Experts say natural disasters can set the stage for cyberattacks. Attackers could take advantage of disruption to wreak havoc on critical infrastructure.

The Port of San Diego will adopt to zero-emission technologies by 2030. The goal comes five years ahead of California’s state-mandated transition away from diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks.