SC Secretary of Transportation Hall Proves Leadership Through Quick Response to Disastrous Flooding
Picture this: You start a new job. Three months later you face a disaster so immense it only occurs once in a millennium.
That's what happened to South Carolina's new Secretary of Transportation, Christy A. Hall, P.E. Hall was appointed Acting Secretary of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) last July. In early October, more than 20 inches of rain-three months of typical rainfall-poured down in just three days. According to statistics compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the torrential rain surpassed a rainfall event that would be expected once every 1,000 years.
With planning, teamwork, extensive communication, and aggressive goals, Hall and SCDOT recovered quickly from the flooding, at a cost much less than anticipated to restore the state's highways and bridges.
Since the South Carolina Senate confirmed Hall as Secretary of Transportation in late January, she continues to use those same strategies to increase accountability, visibility, and clear communication as SCDOT moves from emergency management back to ongoing challenges. With a workforce of 4,500 people-including 2,800 highway maintenance workers and 1,400 engineers-and an annual budget of $1.6 billion, SCDOT oversees the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation.
Fallout from the 1,000-Year Flood
On October 5, at the peak of the flooding event, SCDOT experienced 541 closures. "I set a very aggressive target of reopening 75 percent of those by Thanksgiving," Hall said. "It speaks to the dedication and commitment of the team-not only did they hit that target, they exceeded it with close to 90 percent of roads reopened by Thanksgiving."
Crews performed work at 900 sites on the state highway system, including 221 bridges. Now the only roads that remain closed are where full bridge replacements were needed or on privately owned dams that washed out. "We're waiting for the private owners to decide if they'll repair the dam so we can put the road back on top; if they decommission the dam we'll put a pipe in place then reconstruct the road," Hall explained.
For the two dozen bridge replacements, Hall challenged her staff to get the projects to contract by February. "It's another accelerated target I put on the wall and asked the team to meet, and they did. Now our goal is to have the vast majority of bridges open by this fall, within 180 days of the start of the event."
Many sources predicted the cost of returning roads and bridges to service might hit $1 billion. "We think it will be somewhere in the $137 million range," Hall said. "It surprised a lot of people how efficiently we were able to return everything to service and manage our finances."
Secrets to Quick Response, Low Cost
Several strategies helped SCDOT achieve those results. First, "We realized almost immediately that we had to treat this storm differently than all other natural disasters we'd dealt with," Hall said. "We needed to function as one DOT. That meant all hands on deck. It meant moving resources and team members from up-state to the areas impacted by the storm. We erased all county and district lines and truly looked at it as one organization battling this event."
SCDOT also worked with the National Guard, other state agencies, city and county governments, and mass transit providers. In addition, "Our contracting community has been phenomenal," Hall said. "I really couldn't be prouder of the collaborative effort all the way around, whether it's a major road and bridge contractor or the smaller mom and pop operation. We made a conscious effort to utilize as many of our firms as possible to keep things accelerated."
To further speed the work, before the rain began, "We had some pre-positioned contracts in place that were already FEMA-compliant," Hall said. "That certainly gave us an advantage on the debris removal side. We could start faster and we knew we wouldn't deal with any issues on disallowances."
In addition, SCDOT involved the Federal Highway Administration. "They were at the table with us planning beforehand and they were side-by-side with us during the event and in the assessment phase," she said. "In an event like this, you can very easily make a simple mistake that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. By doing all this side-by-side with them, we were able to make decisions faster and we believe we'll greatly minimize our disallowances."
To help the public through the event, "We really took advantage of social media and made a conscious effort to provide good, accurate information," Hall said. "We provided regular updates covering not only which roads and bridges were open or closed, but also our plans for returning to service. Once we said we'd open this road by this date, it was up to our team to meet that target, no matter what it took."
A Culture of Accountability
That drive for accountability continues as Hall transitions from emergency management into everyday leadership of the DOT. "In some organizations there's a reluctance to set metrics and measure yourself on results," she said. "I'm fortunate that our organization is engineering-based, full of high-performing team members with a competitive nature. It's easier to implement accountability measures because they want to showcase their efforts; they're proud of where they are and they're very much results-focused and target-driven."
In February, SCDOT introduced the first Monthly Management Dashboard, posted on the agency's website and social media platforms. "I view it as a management report card on how well we're meeting our annual plan," Hall said. "Are we constructing our projects on time? Are we meeting project budgets? What are we looking like as far as our manpower resources and the amount of work we outsource?"
In developing the report, she worked with each area of SCDOT. "What's the best measure from your area to explain how well we're doing?" she asked. "The goal is for all of us to hold ourselves accountable to the team as well as the taxpayers of the state. It's a collaborative effort as we try to be more transparent."
To improve results for the new metrics, "We've been messaging our partners through the Associated General Contractors community, the American Council of Engineering Companies, and other forums," Hall said. "We're talking to them about how we need their help."
As an example, "We noticed in our report that only 45 percent of our projects are completed on time in the field," she said. "Of course we can't help some things like bad weather, but we want to dig into the information and work with our industry partners to figure out how to improve. Can we do a better job producing plans? Can we do a better job of utility coordination? Where can the contracting community help us? We're having that dialogue with our partners."
Increasing Understanding and Visibility
In addition to accountability, Hall has worked to improve communication. "I believe we've been a little overly technical in some of the information we posted. Of course a huge engineering organization is going to have a lot of data. But I'm trying to turn that data into useful information that's easy to understand."
For example, "When we talk about on-time and on-budget, let's simplify, clearly explain what that means, and provide visibility to that every month," she said.
When the agency produced their annual State of the SCDOT report earlier this year, "We took something that was very complicated and boiled it down to a couple of slides per asset," Hall said. "The intent was to clearly communicate so whoever viewed the information could take away, "˜DOT is saying that the pavements are in very, very poor condition. Congestion on our interstate system is going to double over the next several years.'"
With more than 40,000 miles of roads and 8,000 bridges, "We're continuing to struggle with a large road network that's in poor condition," Hall added. "About half our budget is dedicated to maintenance and preservation, but it's nowhere near meeting the needs of the system. There's a funding debate going on and my role is to provide good, useful information."
Currently, SCDOT is developing 471 projects at an estimated value of $1.4 billion and managing the construction phase of 343 highway and bridge projects totaling almost $1.9 billion. That includes the second-largest project in SCDOT history, which broke ground in Greenville, South Carolina, in February. The $231 million I-85/I-385 Gateway Project, designed to improve the efficiency and safety of the interchange, is scheduled for completion in summer 2019.
To ensure the best results for all current and future SCDOT projects, "We still have a performance-based management journey to continue along," Hall said. "That's the biggest change I see. We've started down that path and we just have some more items we need to put in place."