Highway Innovation Underway in Idaho

Idaho Transportation Department unleashes the power of innovation to tackle highway challenges

By Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter

Even before the Great Recession, Idaho’s highways and bridges were struggling under the weight of a huge maintenance and repair backlog and a serious long-term funding shortfall. While I wrestled with legislators and stakeholders about how to address the challenges, the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) took the bull by the horns, adopting a more innovative and efficient approach to building and maintaining the state’s transportation system.

ITD Director Brian Ness led a grassroots renaissance focused on enabling and encouraging his employees to think and act more creatively, putting aside entrenched practices to get to what matters – results. Employee ideas and initiatives now are saving Idaho taxpayers millions of dollars and providing the agency with safer and more effective ways to succeed. In the process, ITD has reduced its workforce by about 8.5 percent – saving almost $60 million a year – while markedly improving public services.

What’s more, the innovation program has amassed $5 million in direct cost savings and freed up more than 100,000 personnel hours for redirection to such essential customer-service functions as clearing roads during winter storms.

When Director Ness asked ITD maintenance employees how they could do their jobs better, they responded with what became a nationally recognized program called “Swarm the Storm.” Employees meet with the National Weather Service twice a week to get the latest information on approaching winter storms. Crews then schedule snowplow drivers and equipment around times of greatest need rather than setting a daily schedule. That provides more flexibility and enables ITD to concentrate people and equipment where and when they can do the most good.

The proof of success is in the numbers. In 2010, ITD began tracking the amount of time roads were free of snow and ice during storms. The first year they were clear just 28 percent of the time. The number has jumped to 73 percent this year despite parts of Idaho enduring one of the worst winters in 35 years.

Another example of ITD innovation is the use of A-JACKS mats to protect against erosion around bridge piers used as the foundation of the Spalding Bridge along the pristine Clearwater River in north-central Idaho. Using A-JACKS in fast-moving water was a national first more than a decade ago. The mats also created safer habitat for threatened fish species in the river.

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