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Transportation generation

Program prepares students for change

December 13, 2013

As vehicles in America evolved from Ford’s durable Model T to its powerful F-150, so too did the transportation profession. A field once dominated by civil engineers has broadened, inviting experts from all disciplines to join a conversation around new ideals in transportation.  

The Transportation Management and Policy program at UW-Madison, founded in 2002 in the Nelson Institute, is helping to shape some of the brightest minds at the table. The program trains graduate students to design and manage socially and environmentally responsible transportation systems.  

According to Teresa Adams, the program’s founder and chair and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and environmental studies, America’s early transportation system provided greater mobility and access to resources, but at a cost: Its quick growth neglected the dynamics of communities and the environmental impacts of an automobile-centered system.  

The advent of the automobile grew the economy and increased the productivity of the nation, thrusting it onto the global stage as an economic power. Rapid growth in personal mobility also created a country without boundaries.  

bike car and plane

But after more than a century spent building this infrastructure, the national highway system is now largely complete. Transportation agencies have moved to the task of elongating the life of the system while improving people’s quality of life.  

“The more modern approach to transportation in the last several decades has been to really understand its role in communities and its impact on quality of life, not just on the economic security of the nation,” says Adams.  

Along with this transition of priorities, professional skill sets have also had to change. A broad range of expertise is required for social and environmental assessments.  

UW-Madison is one of a select few campuses that offers a graduate certificate specific to transportation management. The certificate, which is open to graduate students in any field, is designed to prepare students for professional work by bringing together a variety of disciplines. The Transportation Management and Policy program has a remarkable track record of placing its graduates in professional positions.  

Greg Waidley, the program coordinator and a research manager in the College of Engineering, says the interdisciplinary nature of the certificate is vital to its success in preparing students so well for their careers.

“We bring together varied backgrounds with an interest in transportation, so students start to get a broader understanding of transportation issues,” Waidley says. “In the process, the most important thing is they learn how to speak the language of the different disciplines.“  

The program encourages students to push the boundaries of their expertise and to try to visualize problems in new ways. Engineers may begin to consider the issue-based concerns that environmentalists face, while environmentalists begin to understand the technicalities of engineering.  

According to Waidley, certificate holders graduate from the program able to communicate across disciplines – a critical attribute as future professionals. A classroom filled with students from different disciplines closely mirrors the dynamics of a professional workplace, he explains.  

Over the past ten years, about 40 students have graduated from the program, each of them moving on to a unique field in the transportation sector. From the federal government to regional agencies to private industry, students enter the workforce well-equipped with broad backgrounds and education.  

Two core courses within the program are particular favorites among both faculty and students for their relation to real-world needs. These classes – a colloquium and practicum – demonstrate to students what work is like in the transportation sector, and give them an opportunity to practice for themselves.  

“These courses are always different,” Adams says. “They evolve with what’s relevant in the world.”  

The colloquium course acts as a focused speaker series, drawing students’ attention to the issues and responsibilities of different areas within the transportation sector and the interconnectedness of freight transportation. In the practicum, however, students assume the role of a consultant and work to solve an actual problem for a client in the industry.  

“The students not only develop an understanding of the backgrounds that go into transportation, but they’re also developing an interest in freight issues and how that that impacts so many different parts of our society and our economy,” Waidley says. "They’re starting to get a broader understanding of how the whole system works.”  

TMP colloquium: Students play decision maker on high-speed rail

A victory, a tragedy or something in between? 

When Wisconsin governor-elect Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funding for high-speed rail in 2010, emotions were high on all sides of the issue. The decision and surrounding debate provided the perfect springboard for the Transportation Management and Policy (TMP) graduate colloquium at uW-Madison. 

Centered around a timely, topical issue, the one-credit course allows students of various disciplines to display the knowledge and real-world skills they’ve gained through the TMP curriculum. Students imagine themselves as decision-makers within the transportation sector, addressing challenges typical of the field. 

In the spring 2013 semester, students split into two groups to research Governor Walker’s decision and present their findings to faculty, staff and students in a town hall format. 

Students representing Walker’s view calculated a cost of $7.5 million per year for system maintenance and operation. With the train averaging 60 miles per hour, the students argued that the line between Madison and Milwaukee would only slightly, if at all, cut travel time and cost for commuters. And outdated local public transit in city centers would further deter passengers from utilizing the train, as they could not easily travel upon reaching their destinations, students said. 

Students also used the proposed train route to steer the debate toward negative environmental consequences: cutting across a portion of the state with particularly fertile and rare soil, the plan could eliminate valuable natural resources and fragment farmland. 

Those students tasked with presenting arguments opposed to Walker’s decision said the train would keep the state economically competitive by including citizens in a regional transportation system connecting Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis. The students then turned to the job market, arguing that the rail construction would bring to Wisconsin anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 jobs over a five-year period. By sharing the railway with freight transportation, a high-speed rail would also increase sales and industries in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, these students argued. 

Finally, students highlighted the importance of rail travel for younger populations who statistically drive much less than older generations, seeking out alternative, environmentally friendly forms of transportation. 

To see video of the students’ presentations and read their full reports, visit: 

TMP alumni arrive at their destination in transportation sector 

As you make your way to your next destination, you may very likely be traversing the work of Nelson institute alumni. 

For more than a decade, the Transportation Management and Policy (TMP) program – a graduate certificate that can be added to any UW-Madison degree program – has graduated tomorrow’s leaders in transport. We check in with four of those alumni from a range of transportation fields. 

Chris Dresser (‘08)
Environmental Protection Agency 

Chris Dresser

As more vehicles travel the roadways, more harmful pollutants enter the atmosphere, degrading air quality. Innumerable health and environmental problems trail close behind. 

Regulating air pollution is a classic solution, but one that must continually evolve as transportation routes expand. 

At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chris Dresser works in the office of Transportation and Air quality to mandate air pollution levels in the rapidly changing transportation sector. His efforts fall in the category of transportation conformity – a sector-wide effort to connect air quality standards with transportation initiatives. 

“It ensures that a city’s transportation plan doesn’t worsen air quality or prevent the city from meeting federal clean air standards,” Dresser says. “We use computer modeling to predict the air quality resulting from cur rent and future transportation emissions.” 

Transportation conformity is a requirement of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. The Clean Air Act, originally enacted in 1970, was the first of a series of environmental laws enacted by Congress as part of what would become known as the environmental decade. The legislation was intended to improve human health and environmental quality while encouraging economic growth. 

“Transportation agencies use the money they receive to build roads, and that’s their job,” Dresser says. “The Clean Air Act and transportation conformity, however, mandate transportation planners think about environmental and air quality impacts before they build the road.” 

Stephanie Lind (‘08)

Federal Highway Administration 

National parks draw in millions of visitors each year, often for their pastoral landscapes located far from our bustling lives. The parks’ attraction, however, can exact a price on small surrounding communities and the environmental integrity of the parks themselves. 

Stephanie Lind

During vacation seasons, severe congestion – typical of dense metropolitan centers – hampers small towns near national parks. Continuing into the parks, high traffic volumes also threaten natural areas that the National Park Service seeks to preserve. 

Stephanie Lind, a transportation planner for the Federal Highway Administration, works to resolve these issues in the Central Federal Lands Highway Division. Linking land use with transportation, Lind researches and implements projects for federal lands, including the national parks. 

Her assignments range from small park roads to elaborate forest highway systems accessing parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and defense operations lands.

“Our challenge is to address urban-like congestion problems with strategies that work in a rural context and with visitors who aren’t familiar with the area,” Lind says. “We encourage visitors to use alternative transportation, explore less congested areas, or travel during different times of day so that there isn’t as much impact on gateway communities or federal lands.” 

With a constant stream of visitors year round, federal land managers carefully monitor areas that could benefit from fewer human interactions. Transportation planners play a prominent role in this relief effort. 

“It’s not just getting people in to the parks,” Lind says. “It’s managing where people go, having a quality transportation service for users, and taking the natural environment into consideration.” 

Mary Ebeling (‘06) 
State Smart Transportation Initiative 

Inefficient transit systems often leave communities fragmented and jeopardize environmental sustainability. Changing community dynamics demand new transportation strategies that streamline forms of transit. 

Mary Ebeling

The State Smart Transportation Initiative(SStI), housed in the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW-Madison, promotes more efficient transportation practices that produce an improved system for all users. Mary Ebeling, a transportation policy analyst at SSTI, works with departments of transportation to consider transformative transportation initiatives and coordinate reforms across the sector. 

“We work as a community of practice, providing an open forum for state departments of transportation to discuss any number of topics,” Ebeling says. For example, a recent meeting focused on how states and cities can more positively work together to advance new programs. 

The initiative also provides free technical assistance, webinars and other resources for transportation administrators aimed at demonstrating the direct impacts of improved transportation systems operations. 

“We identify ways that transportation departments can operate more efficiently, more effectively, and save money, then we broadcast that knowledge to the larger transportation community,” Ebeling says. “Through our resources, other states and departments of transportation can get a taste of policies they may be able to implement to improve their operations.” 

Sam Van Hecke (‘06)
Cambridge Systematics 

For aging infrastructure, maintenance matters. For aging transportation infrastructure, maintenance can mean the difference between life and death for travelers. 

But the transportation sector has not always exhibited such attention to detail. For a time, the country’s infrastructure was built haphazardly to quickly expand roadways and bridges to accommodate growth, with little emphasis on upkeep. 

Sam Van Hecke
Van Hecke

Sam Van Hecke is helping to shift the thinking behind transportation decisions. As an associate at Cambridge Systematics, a transportation consulting firm focused on planning, Van Hecke works to elongate the life of safe, easily navigable and reliable transit systems. 

“Traditionally, transportation agencies were just thinking about expansion,” Van Hecke says. “They wanted to know where they should build the next road or bridge, and how to accommodate growth. Now we want to know how we keep what we already have from crumbling and get the most out of our scarce dollars.” 

Today, transportation agencies practice what is called asset management: monitoring nationwide transit infrastructure for gradual degradation. Think keeping an eye on a home driveway for cracks, but on a much larger scale. 

“Asset management is a series of analyses and processes to help transportation agencies make the best possible decisions to maintain roads and bridges,” Van Hecke explains. “We advise our clients on ways to do this, either by measuring the performance of the system, improving the system, or analyzing policy-level decisions that affect the system.” 

Van Hecke relies on maps, graphics and other data visualization methods to explain the complex – and often unfamiliar – transportation concepts at the heart of his efforts. 

“At almost every stage of the project, we have to show our clients the value of our work and the importance of the story we are all trying to tell,” he says.