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Climate Change, Other Factors Are Forcing DOTs to Evolve

Watch for transportation agencies and departments to begin looking beyond the cadre of civil engineers as they tackle social equity and previously unrealized challenges like extreme weather.

A person riding a bike crossing in front of three lines of stopped cars next to a stopped train at an intersection.
Transportation departments at all levels of government have long been the domain of armies of civil engineers and similar job titles. But with new concerns around climate, social equity and accommodating more modes of mobility, DOTs are looking to other skill sets and technologies to evolve transportation systems.

Public agencies are working to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as deal with the effects of extreme weather and other events related to climate change, said Aimee Flannery, a transportation engineer with Jacobs Engineering during a Feb. 22 panel discussion about sustainable mobility. The discussion was organized and hosted by the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“We know our system is under threat,” Flannery said flatly.

“Agencies are having to move toward embracing both of these — mitigation and adaptation — simultaneously,” she continued. “They don’t necessarily have a choice to wait for mitigation to come online. They have to deal with both simultaneously.”

U.S. infrastructure is ranked only 13th in the world, due to decades of disinvestment, Flannery pointed out, underscoring the need to upgrade it under the best conditions. However, the challenges brought by extreme weather, sea-level rise and other side effects of climate change make the call for new investments in technologies and planning approaches around transportation infrastructure all the more urgent.

“We’re moving toward a need for a surge on investment in our infrastructure, and we have seen some action on that front from Congress,” said Flannery, calling attention to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law a year ago.

The law calls attention to new skills sets needed, but also new approaches to planning and developing infrastructure projects, taking into consideration social justice concerns like equity and how communities can be negatively affected by transportation in the forms of air, noise and other pollution.

New trends in areas like the electrification of vehicles — of all types — will open new opportunities for jobs, said Alva Carrasco, director for the Los Angeles region for Burns Engineering, who also serves as president of the board of directors for Latinos in Transit.

“There is such a huge need for training, for educating and preparing a huge workforce to be able to build the infrastructure, to maintain and repair the infrastructure,” said Carrasco.

“The future is really, really bright and we need to start preparing our workforce,” she continued, calling attention to the need to invest in more architects, engineers, project managers and technicians.

Some of the skills needed among transportation planners now include areas like climate modeling, which can include forecasting and climate projections.

Those workers will need to be paid competitively, said Flannery, echoing another concern for DOTs.

"We’re a noble industry that often doesn’t toot our own horns very well,” she remarked. “ ... We have to flex that muscle and make sure that we’re fighting for the dollars that we need to bring in the staff. We’re definitely going to have, I think, a more diverse set of professionals than we’re used to.”

About 10 years ago many agencies had generous retirement programs and other benefits, said Carrasco. However, in more recent years, public agencies “have really reduced and watered down those benefits.”

“So working a ‘city job,’ or a ‘union job’ is not as favored as it was 10 or 20 years ago,” she added. “And that’s just going back to being competitive and paying better wages for our employees.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.