The Future of Transportation: Public-Private Partnerships and the Digital Age

Transportation and mobility have been with humans since we came out of the trees and onto the grasslands, when we walked everywhere. Transportation has evolved to the present.

The transformation of infrastructure and transportation is occurring as a result of two “sea level” changes: public-private partnerships in the general and narrow sense and the digital revolution. This manifests itself in the move to autonomous vehicles in a safe and seamless transportation system, “big data” to further enhance doing more at less cost (e.g. asset management, intelligent transportation systems and infrastructure, project delivery and all of the processes and enablers that allow delivery of products and services) and the collaboration of public-private partnerships in the broadest sense that leverage strengths of each.

For the past decade, funding the transportation system has been the subject of  considerable conversation, debate, coverage, and government struggles at all levels. Today, the nation and states are essentially in a system preservation mode, although several states have taken the lead to generate needed funding for the aging infrastructure. This is not necessarily a surprise since the founding fathers contemplated that states would be fertile test beds for the federal government to extract national policies. A case in point, Oregon was the first state in the nation to develop a fuel tax. Within 10 years every state had a fuel tax. Concurrently, the predecessor for the interstate highway system, the Pershing Map, was created around World War I for similar purposes. It looks very similar to today’s interstate highways system map. So, why was it not built? The answer is lack of consensus on how to pay for it. Over the intervening 30 plus years until President Eisenhower signed into law the interstate highway system and the means to fund it, multiple committees, commissions and studies were appointed by the President and Congress. The three primary methods for funding the interstate highway system were:

  1. toll
  2. bond
  3. build the interstate, wait for the adjacent land prices to escalate, and sell it for a profit.

None of the three were agreed upon and selected. The federal government finally adopted the funding mechanism that the states had been using for 30 plus years, the fuel tax. That was the advent of the Federal Highway Trust Fund to pay for construction (not maintenance) of the interstate highway system.  Eisenhower signed this into law as the Federal Highway Act of 1956, commonly known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act – the largest public works project through that time.

So what is the problem now and will we have to wait another 30 years to find a funding mechanism? It is common knowledge that the fuel tax continues as a valid funding mechanism, but it is no longer sustainable given more efficient vehicles, alternative fuels, recognition that oil is not a renewable resource, and concern over global warming. Several states have even increased their fuel tax in recent years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. This has been helped by the decreasing price of oil and the concomitant decrease in the price of fuel at the pump.

So, what is the problem? We are victims of our own success, and to some extent spoiled, by fixed high speed highways.

MoveA new book, Move (putting America’s infrastructure back in the lead) by Rosabeth Moss Kanter provides an extremely well done analysis of where we are and where we are headed. She describes that mobility is the imperative, not infrastructure, vehicles or digital technology alone. We are at a “strategic inflection point” which requires that we change the way we think and act. We must develop a vision to bring the nation into the 21st Century and away from a 20th Century mindset. We must tell a complex story in a clear, simple and elegant way. We must change the perception from a tax-payer cost to a societal investment, produce jobs today and economic opportunity tomorrow, and move from a tax increase to a user fee. We must reinvent the passive highway with the information super highway and from fixed to dynamic infrastructure through collaboration across all interests; from a system that is static and unexciting to one that is dynamic and that people are willing to pay for. The only limitation is imagination. Kanter further states that we are stuck because connections across relevant players are lacking. We have obsolete ways of thinking and talking about it. In effect, we must be an open door to partnerships. In addition to GM and other more historically main stream transportation partners, some of these new partnerships include the digital world of IBM, Google, Verizon, Apple and others we do not normally associate with transportation and infrastructure.

The world is changing and we must change with it. We must change how we think and find common, shared purpose in meeting the needs of all Americans.

“Only three things happen naturally in organizations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.”

– Peter Drucker

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Print.

Management – Getting Results

As part of my leadership philosophy, I separate the leadership of people from the management of things. Inherently people cannot be managed, and in fact resist it. However, they can be led with clear goals, direction, and working toward something that highly motivates them and that is greater than themselves.

That said, the management of things is essential.

First and foremost, a mission statement must be clearly established. That is the ultimate aim. For a Department of Transportation (DOT) and depending on their responsibilities, it is generally accurate to say that they “provide a safe, reliable and sustainable transportation system for the movement of people and goods while improving the economy, mobility and environment.”

Based on my experience, I believe a DOT must establish a relatively small list (10-15) of specific and measurable goals (performance measures) that should be divided into two groups:

  1. strategic goals or outcomes (6-8) and
  2. enablers (7-9) that support the achieving of those goals.

It is fairly common to measure too many goals in a DOT. The risk is losing focus on organizational outcomes, especially at the senior executive level. At the senior executive level it is as important to know what to ignore as it is what to focus on. It is important to measure things and at the right organizational level, especially when issues must be drilled into to reveal areas for improvement. Evidence-based decision-making must take place making true the adage that “the data will set you free”. Nearly everyone has a different opinion of what is important, especially if it is the work they are doing. Everyone’s work should be important and support organizational outcomes. However, these goals must be vetted and the organization aligned to achieve these outcomes. There are essentially seven strategic goals/outcomes for DOTs:

  • safety
  • jobs and commerce
  • mobility
  • access
  • environmental stewardship
  • infrastructure preservation
  • customer service/satisfaction

While I have not defined these, there could be subsets, for example for customer service/satisfaction. Customers can be defined as the public but also legislatures, congress and various partners such as construction contractors, consultants, truckers, shippers etc. I mention this because in the end it is the satisfaction of the customers, supported by the partners, that makes funding, political support, collaboration and a lot of other things work.

Kanter (2015) has a similar idea for a win-win-win-win-win:

  • save lives
  • save costs
  • add convenience by easing congestion
  • reduce pollution and mitigate climate change
  • create future growth opportunities that create new jobs

Another example of outcomes, specific to giga-programs such as the Oregon Transportation Act (OTIA) III State Bridge Delivery Program, is to:

  • stimulate Oregon’s economy
  • employ efficient cost-effective delivery practices
  • maintain freight mobility and keep traffic moving
  • build projects sensitive to their communities and landscape
  • capitalize on funding opportunities

Enablers are largely responsible for:

  • project delivery
  • asset management
  • fiscal responsibility/ROI
  • collaboration/partnership
  • workforce development
  • leveraging technology (think digital technology – transforming transportation and the subject of a later blog)
  • risk management

That said, everything is in a constant process of improvement and so it must be for DOTs and the industry to remain competitive.

One of the more intriguing sources I have come across on the subject of people versus goals/results is from the Harvard Business Review, December 27, 2013, entitled “Should leaders focus on results, or on people?” by Matthew Lieberman. His article reports that if a leader has great social skills only 12% of people consider him a great leader. If a leader has great results skills he is considered great by 14% of people. If a leader has both skill sets the percentage of people rating him a great leader skyrockets to 78%. However, less than 1% of leaders are rated high in both goal focus and social skills.

More will be written in future blogs about the dynamics of people-based, results-driven leadership.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

– Peter F. Drucker

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015. Print.

Collaboration – The World of Partnerships

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines collaboration as a noun “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something.” Paraphrased, collaboration enables individuals to work together to achieve a defined and common business practice. Simple, right? Not at all. The challenge becomes the ability for people to work closely and avoid the interference of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and differing opinions. Collaboration is “all about people.” I believe it is largely about listening, finding common ground and finding a way to achieve mutual business benefits. It may be more of a challenge with clients since their interests must be served first and foremost. This is especially acute when serving as the owner’s representative on complex mega-programs.

So, how is collaboration achieved? Through open and honest communications, lots of listening, feedback, alignment, relationship-building, mutual respect, trust and the achievement of mutual benefits and serving the client.

This can be difficult, and there are bumps along the way, but strong relationships will weather the storm and allow collaboration to flourish for the greater good. In fact, as relationships build it should be agreed upon that the relationship will be retained regardless of  disagreements. Although difficult to achieve,  it is very possible if all parties really want it.

While collaboration can and should occur between all people, its roles continue to shift between the public and private sectors. For example, as the digital revolution continues, it is unlikely that the public sector is sufficiently nimble enough to cost-effectively manage these rapid changes. The private sector is much better suited. Conversely, it is likely that the construction industry will continue its traditional construction role but with increasing use of machine control and other digital efficiencies.

In the main, the public sector, as the owner, may increasingly manage the transportation system while the private sector may increasingly be responsible for delivery of products and services. This evolution has already begun in such places as the Oregon Department of Transportation where a private-sector joint venture delivered a long-duration, complex mega-program to repair or replace hundreds of Oregon bridges. Similar programs have been undertaken in Missouri, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

– Helen Keller


Trust, what is it and what is it worth? I asked that question of a national railroad company executive some years ago and the immediate response was it is worth a million dollars. They did not mean that literally but they did mean that our trusting relationship was priceless and monetarily worth a lot to our mutual and individual business interests.

Several trust equations exist but there is one I especially like from The Trusted Advisor (October 2000) by David H. Maister, Charles H. Green and Robert M. Gailford:

EquationC credibility
R reliability
I intimacy
SO self-orientation

That is trust is greatest when the focus is on the other person versus your self-interest. That can be a fine line to walk as we all have self-interests. However, to listen, orient on, empathize with and understand someone else’s interests can open up honest and open discussions that expand ones thinking and opens the opportunity for the resolution of issues. This also serves to alleviate fear that either side is going to be taken advantage of. This usually develops an appreciation from the other person that their interests are important and respected even if resolution does not completely satisfy the interests of both parties, which it rarely does. And sometimes, middle ground is found that furthers the interest of all parties. Such is the value of trust.

“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish”.

-Marcus Aurelius

Maister, David H., Charles H. Green, and Robert M. Galford. The Trusted Advisor. New York: Free, 2000. Print.

It is all about people – Relationships

It is hard for me to imagine anything more important than high quality relationships. This is equally true in our personal and professional lives. As such, I thought it appropriate to do the first blog on the importance of relationships.

Relationships exist between individual people, not between companies, organizations, agencies, cites, counties, states, countries or other groups of people. I believe it is common to develop a preconceived notion of individuals based on the reputation of a group of people. Still, relationships are between individual people and we can never forget that.

SapiensI am currently reading Sapiens- a brief history of human kind by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari begins by stating that we are an animal of no significance. Then about 70,000 years ago the Cognitive Revolution began as people began to form cultures. Then the Agricultural Revolution hit about 12,000 years ago, followed by the Scientific Revolution only 500 years ago. Throughout these revolutions, tribes, towns, cities, states, empires and finally nations have formed. Our imaginations have created social, political, legal and economic arrangements with associated norms, religions, beliefs, values, traditions, monetary currencies and desires. These “imagined orders” have changed many times over the millennia and will continue to evolve in the future. Nonetheless, we are left with the reality that we are social beings bound together by the relationships we create in our personal and professional lives. In many ways those relationships are what sustain us. We have changed very little in this regard.

There are many elements to building and maintaining relationships – trust, mutual respect, tolerance, authenticity, transparency, being vulnerable, avoiding being judgmental, forgiveness, feeling safe, making and honoring commitments and apologizing when mistakes are made. As part of my leadership theme, I will address some of these people-based elements in addition to results-driven elements in future posts.

It is also powerful when people believe in you, and you in them. I draw inspiration from those that believe in me.

Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.

– Ben Stein

Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2015. Print.