Crisis Planning to Weather the Storm

Crisis Planning to Weather the Storm

In December 2007 the Washington State Department of Transportation closed the I-5 interstate highway due to extreme storm flooding. The crisis not only tested WSDOT's emergency response capabilities, it also provided a real-world test of the Freight System Resiliency Plan, a disaster recovery framework that WSDOT's Freight Systems Division developed in collaboration with the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics.

The loss of I-5, a major north-south route for trucking along the West Coast, was a severe blow to the freight community. The trade artery connects California to major business centers in the Portland and Seattle metro areas.

Although detours were quickly brought into play, the alternative routes caused truckers and their customers to incur higher costs and delays. For example, detours that used routes U.S. 97 and I-82 added about $500 and $850 of cost respectively per truckload. Also, the detours were much longer and hours of service limitations on drivers left trucks stranded all over the state.

For the freight industry, the impact continued even after I-5 opened as supply chains moved to regain momentum.

The way agencies respond to such emergencies is important not only during the crisis, but afterwards when freight systems need to be brought back up to speed.

Yet research carried out by WSDOT and MIT's CTL indicates freight recovery plans at the state level generally are inadequate, and more work is needed to equip agencies to deal with the aftermath of disasters.

The Freight System Resiliency Plan is a first step in this direction. WSDOT's state of emergency last December provided an opportunity to put the plan into action, and learn vital lessons that will benefit transportation authorities and freight carriers across the nation.

The results are still being collated, but the state transportation department's Freight Systems Division has already learned a great deal from the experience.

First, having a resiliency plan meant the agency was better prepared to respond in a fast-changing emergency situation.

If the agency had not thought about these issues beforehand it would have been trying to respond completely on the fly, and probably missed opportunities to recover. In this regard two particular areas come to mind: How users are notified of developments, and the way the agency allocates scarce trade lanes.

WSDOT has an emergency operations center and a joint information center located next to each other. The EOC feeds information to the communications team, who develop news releases and Web site updates to keep the community informed.

For the first time, the Freight Systems Division - which develops strategic plans and budgets for the state's freight systems - was directly involved in the activities of both centers.

Effective communications is an important part of the Freight System Resiliency Plan, and increasing cooperation between departments improved the way information was disseminated during the crisis.

For example, it was the first time that the agency's communications group really recognized that they need to notify shippers and carriers differently than the general public.

Commercial users require clear, concise information that tells them what their transportation options are, in contrast to news services that require a very different style of reporting. 

The allocation of road space also benefits from clear thinking.

A key factor here is eliminating uncertainty; making sure that there is no ambiguity about which commercial users can use the limited infrastructure available in an emergency. When there is uncertainty, carriers will default to the worst case.

In other words if there is any doubt about the integrity of a freight route, carriers will assume the worst and choose a different option. If a government agency creates uncertainty by not being clear about which roads are open to truck traffic, then carriers will err on the side of caution. And if they don't use the lanes that are available then there is wasted capacity.

During the December closure of I-5, WSDOT gave top priority to commercial vehicles carrying vital supplies such as fuel and food by allowing them passage through a restricted two-lane highway serving as the shortest detour. 

Once WSDOT was able to get I-5 ready for safe travel, it opened I-5 for commercial vehicles only before opening the highway for the general public. Work is now under way within the agency to establish clear policies so users and frontline staff know who gets to use the highway if a major disruption cuts capacity.

The resiliency plan has prompted these types of deliberations. The framework says that you need to have such discussions at a high policy level, but other states do not seem to have thought about predetermining principles like these.

The value of the Freight Resiliency Plan has been vindicated by its first exposure to a real crisis situation. Now the agency wants to build on this research and be better prepared for future emergencies.


Ivanov is director of the Washington State Department of Transportation Freight Systems Division.