Unfortunately, it takes a devastating storm like Hurricane Sandy to show us how deeply we depend on transportation infrastructure to keep us safe and healthy, get us to and from work, and deliver the goods and services we depend on every day.
Even in Florida — where severe weather is a common story — most drivers take their highways, bridges, and tunnels for granted when times are good. But when Sandy slammed into the U.S. Eastern Seaboard in late October, I know I wasn’t the only Floridian who thought back to another storm, just over 20 years before. For the state’s road operators and toll authorities, Hurricane Andrew drove home the need for a new approach to emergency management: You can never be too prepared. You can’t be too resilient.
Two decades later, Sandy showed us that the era of the super storm is upon us. That means the lessons of Hurricane Andrew — followed by Hurricanes Frances, Katrina, Wilma, and Debby — have never been more important.
As states and local communities explore ways to be better prepared, sectors of the transportation industry are also turning a critical eye to the responsible role that we, too, can play in keeping the public safe. Just last week in Miami, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, the tolling industry’s leading professional association, brought together industry-leaders, experts and practitioners on severe weather, emergency management, and roadway operations to identify best practices — better ways to prepare and respond to severe weather situations that jeopardize our customers’ livelihoods.
Knowing that Sandy’s destruction left millions of dollars in damage to our roads, the tolling industry aims to better equip its professionals to keep critical transportation arteries available to move people and goods, safely and efficiently.
Anticipating and preparing for the next super storm is an essential part of toll authorities’ mission to deliver safe, efficient mobility. With more than 5,000 miles of roads and crossings in 35 states and territories, U.S. toll operators logged five billion trips in 2011 and served nearly 40 million prepaid customers. A quick, reliable ride on a tolled lane or highway is also a safer ride: In 2008, toll facilities had a fatality rate that was one-third that of the overall U.S. road network.
In a crisis, the priorities are to open the roads for evacuations, clear a path to areas that are hardest hit, get supplies and first responders to the scene, rebuild infrastructure that is damaged or destroyed, and restore normal operations as quickly as possible. None of that is possible without a comprehensive management plan, which is why toll authorities around the country continue to work together to find the best method to approach emergency preparedness.
With the Northeast recovering from Sandy and the U.S. Congress setting the final scope of a relief package, there are important factors for toll authorities to explore: from the impact of severe weather on highway operations, to the best uses of social media to keep customers informed and safe. While we continue to repair the damage from the last storm, it’s never too early to begin preparing for the next one — and that’s exactly what the toll industry is doing.
The time is now to shift into high gear by returning our systems, sharpening our responses, and making sure we’re even better prepared when the next storm arrives. For road operators, that will mean moving toward resilient highway systems that can better adapt to changing weather patterns, while guaranteeing a safe, efficient drive for our customers. And to pay for that infrastructure, toll financing is an essential part of the picture.
While leaders worldwide throughout the tolling industry recently started the conversation in Florida, it will be an ongoing discussion about how we all can be better prepared. Toll authorities, departments of transportation, and elected officials can learn a lot from each other as we work to make our roads more resilient, and Florida’s highway operators have a lot of experience to share.
Now is the time to build the infrastructure and the management systems that will maximize driver safety and keep America’s goods and people moving, whatever heavy weather lies ahead.
Javier Rodriguez is executive director of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and second vice president of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.