Virginia to Revamp Transportation Operations Centers

Administrator says no other state’s transportation department has blended management and technology in the way Virginia hopes to.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is turning to the private sector for new ideas on how to modernize and integrate its five transportation operations centers (TOCs).

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell recently announced that the transportation department had issued an RFI asking private entities for proposals on how the transportation operation centers can operate more efficiently and provide better services. Based on the information received from the RFI, the transportation department will put together a strategy and solicit vendors to carry out the transformation.

Tom Phillips, division administrator in VDOT’s Operations and Security Division, said he believes no other state transportation department in the U.S. has blended management and technology in the way VDOT is hoping to.

“There’s a software piece, a staffing piece — and we’re also looking for a program management piece that puts these things together and leverages the technology, ensures we’re interoperable and is looking ahead more proactively, rather than the current way we operate,” Phillips said.

Right now, all five centers are completely isolated from one another, operating on different technology platforms and managed under a variety of contracts and vendors. Phillips said the idea is to get everything under one technology system and change the overall operational culture.

Personnel at the TOCs monitor cameras and all the technology that’s utilized to see what happens on Virginia’s roadways. Operators change the electronic road signs that tell motorists what traffic to expect ahead, and the operators dispatch service vehicles and coordinate with emergency responders when needed.

The VDOT centers are run in what Phillips called the “body shop world,” where the agency hires contractors and tells those companies how many people are needed and gives exact instructions on what they should do. Officials hope the RFI will lead to a more innovative management structure that requires more highly skilled workers and plays a bigger leadership role in how operations should be handled.

From a technology perspective, improved communications between the centers will also be paramount.

“I don’t want to paint a negative picture, but … our centers are sort of standalone islands,” Phillips said. “One center does not know what the other is doing without picking up the phone. That’s how they share information. And to me, with today’s technology, there has to be a better way.”

Tamara Rollison, division administrator with VDOT Public Affairs, agreed but added that she’s skeptical that one contractor would have both the management and technical abilities VDOT is looking for. She thought it likelier that a group of vendors would band together for the project.

Rollison said Virginia would prefer to see what fresh takes on their situation are out there rather than looking inwardly to the commonwealth’s technology and management personnel.

On Monday, Jan. 30, after Government Technology posted this story online, Rollison expanded on the state’s reasoning.

“The key reason we are going to the private sector is that we are looking for a partner who will bring innovation and investment to operating the TOC’s across the state,” she wrote in an email. “The end goal is to use technology more effectively to better manage congestion, freight movement, incidents, severe-weather related incidents and traveler information.”

This story was updated at 11:10 a.m. Pacific PST.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.
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