UVA Engineering-VDOT Effort Promotes Efficient Transportation Project Management

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Five years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation finished rebuilding the U.S. 29-Rio Road intersection in Charlottesville, separating local and through traffic to relieve congestion and lower the crash rate at one of the corridor’s biggest choke points.

The development stage of such a project – the phase before a construction contractor can even be hired – requires a team of consultants, government officials and VDOT engineers and planners executing essential tasks. The problem is, they tend to operate in silos, so one partner doesn’t always know what the others are doing or what they need and why.

In Virginia, however, there is a place these stakeholders can go to gain a thorough appreciation for one another’s roles and ultimately become better project managers.

That place is the Transportation Project Management Institute, known as TPMI, at the University of Virginia. The intensive two-week residential institute is jointly presented by VDOT and the Center for Transportation Studies at the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Since 2009, 368 people have graduated from the institute. The curriculum, which covers technical and interpersonal aspects of transportation project management, is designed for employees across the commonwealth’s transportation profession, including those in state and local government and private consulting firms.

“Realistically, they all have to work together to improve roadway infrastructure,” said Lindsay Ivey-Burden, an assistant professor in UVA’s civil engineering program and director of the institute. “So it’s really helpful for the participants to network and meet the people that they have probably already been emailing because they’ve worked with them on a project or had to ask questions.”

The program is for experienced professionals who are being entrusted with increasing responsibility in their organizations. VDOT employees from each district and the central office are chosen to attend the institute by their supervisors, while non-VDOT participants go through a competitive admissions process. VDOT reserves four paid scholarship slots for local government employees each year, plus one scholarship for a female- or minority-owned business that interacts with VDOT, municipalities or subcontractors in the design or construction of roadway projects.

Mixing employee populations is one of the program’s strengths, said Robert Tieman, director of the VDOT Project Management Office and an alumnus of the institute. Its intensity is another strength, and the two work hand-in-hand.

Each class is made up of 30 to 40 of the state’s rising transportation leaders. Participants might start the day’s instruction at 8 or 9 a.m. and go well into the night working in teams on a real-world transportation management project from start to finish. Worldwide pandemics permitting, they dine together, build teams and socialize during free time.

“Across the board, participants are amazed to find out what other people need to do to get a project done,” said Tieman, who is the program’s VDOT coordinator. “And they really do bond.”

Because participants are often at the same stage in developing their professional relationships, they’re advancing respectively within their own organizations, he said.

“What we hear is, ‘Five, 10 years later, I can still call up this person who I got to know really well. I’m in an area of more responsibility, as are they, and we can have candid conversations and help streamline processes,’” Tieman said.

“I think that’s in part due to the intensive nature of the training, because they are spending a lot of time together,” he said, adding that participants are also freed from their day-to-day responsibilities during training. “TPMI is kind of a unique oasis where it can be this crucible to thoroughly examine: How does the transportation industry work? How do you manage projects? How should you manage projects now?”

Tieman believes one of the most enduring takeaways for most participants is a stronger desire to forge positive partnerships for the sake of smoother, more efficient projects – making their jobs easier and, more important, better serving Virginians.

Tieman, who holds leadership positions in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, isn’t aware of another event in the country like Virginia’s institute, but he knows other states want to emulate the program.

“It is an honor to be selected to attend TPMI,” UVA’s Ivey-Burden said. “One reason is there is a lot of support for the program in the leadership of VDOT.”

Just this year, two former VDOT commissioners, David Gehr and Philip Shucet, participated in the institute, along with current VDOT chief engineer Bart Thrasher, former VDOT chief engineer Garrett Moore and the current VDOT commissioner, Steve Brich – who received his master’s in civil engineering at UVA in 1994.

“It’s invaluable for the participants to get to interact with these people and ask them questions,” Ivey-Burden said.

Tieman agreed that support for the institute at VDOT’s highest levels is key to the program’s success – along with its partnership with UVA Engineering. Both entities contribute to the curriculum of the institute, which includes instruction on the variety of skills it takes to be a successful project manager: understanding and leading people, risk management and systems thinking, and the technical details of taking a transportation project from start to finish. The institute is a year-round effort, and planning by both UVA and VDOT for updated content begins as soon as the annual session in June concludes.

Tieman said he is grateful to Ivey-Burden and others at UVA who have been instrumental in making the institute what it has become, noting that organizations make big commitments in lost time and revenue when they enroll their employees.

“But TPMI has proven over the years that most people see a whole lot of benefit from it,” Tieman said. “And we’ve seen a steady rise of local governments’ interest in this training over the past few years, which I think is wonderful.”

The institute is part of a suite of educational and career advancement programs administered by the Center for Transportation Studies and is integrated with the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, home to systems, civil and environmental engineering at UVA.

“The Transportation Project Management Institute is a great example of how the Center for Transportation Studies and the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment provide an important service to the state through high-level continuing education for professionals,” Brian Smith, a professor and chair of the department, said. “This is an important role for the University, in addition to our contributions in research and training our undergraduate and graduate students to be transportation leaders.”