Deep Dive, Resilience, Transportation

Our Deep Dive series features our technical experts who give you an inside look at how we are solving complex infrastructure challenges for our clients from across the world.

This week, we are highlighting Nicole Boothman-Shepard, vice president and senior director from our Disaster Resilience Solutions Group, and how she and her team are developing a National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) guidebook on leveraging contract administration as a powerful tool for catastrophic disaster recovery.

The guidebook helps transportation agencies get ready for, respond to and recover from catastrophes like back-to-back hurricanes. Its recommendations are based on case studies, empirical research and “boots-on-the-ground” experience. This roadmap helps clients save time and money, attenuate risks and incorporate Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) goals into projects.

As principal investigator for the guidebook, Nicole is a passionate partner in strategic risk reduction. A national expert in federal policy, she’s enabled government clients to leverage $9 billion in federal funding for resilient reconstruction and equitable community development. Before transitioning to the private sector after Hurricane Katrina, Nicole directed a state agency for community service while serving as Vulnerable Populations Coordinator for Rhode Island.

Tell us more about the NCHRP guidebook and how it enables transportation agencies and communities to rebound from catastrophic disasters.

When disaster strikes, communities must rapidly restore lifelines, but procuring infrastructure reconstruction quickly is challenging. To unlock the power of administrative tools during disaster recovery, we’re authoring the NCHRP 07-108 guidebook, Contracting Strategies for the Administration of Concurrent Regional Emergencies and Disasters. Its recommendations apply to every surface transportation agency—from state and tribal DOTs (Department of Transportation), to cities or counties. Scheduled for publishing in December 2023, the guidebook is sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), the transportation arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering.

Post-disaster conditions are demanding, and fast-paced decisions can affect communities for 50 to100 years. The role of administration is often overlooked, as errors in procurement can cause hundreds of millions of dollars in audit risks in the wake of disaster. Our research showed the number one factor in the de-obligation of federal disaster dollars was improper procurement—one of the primary administrative tasks in the disaster recovery process.

In the past two decades, we’ve seen more frequent and severe disasters. NOAA tracked 18 billion-dollar events in 2022 alone. This means effective post-disaster administration is more crucial than ever.

Among the 400+ disasters AECOM has responded to, we supported New York MTA with Superstorm Sandy and Colorado DOT’s 2013 flood recoveries. These successful projects informed the guidebook, which outlines the powerful role of ESG in administration after a disaster—particularly when it comes to transportation.

By building ESG into project scopes of work and contract terms, transportation agencies can hold designers and contractors accountable for achieving ESG goals during project delivery. Post disaster, everything is accelerated—master planning is completed in months and an eight-year bridge project is completed in two years.

Catastrophes cause human suffering and acutely affect vulnerable populations, so recovery comes with a special responsibility to take advantage of the inflection point and added resources that follow. When structured the right way, we can systematically improve transportation systems. It’s an opportunity to ask questions like:

  • What new mobility solutions have the community identified (e.g., protected bike lanes)?
  • Can we optimize intermodal hubs?
  • Which resilient asset performance standards should be adopted, can we use nature-based solutions (NbS) and how do we reach net-zero?

While transportation agencies often favor ESG-centered mobility solutions, they don’t have millions available for improvements when a corridor isn’t beyond its useful life. But when a catastrophe destroys that corridor and $350 million must be spent on reconstruction, spending $10 million more to achieve a resilient roadway built for active transportation is feasible. That’s why the guidebook matters: it can help officials across the country not only better respond to disasters, but also build more resiliently and sustainably in their aftermaths.

What was a key challenge you/your team faced while working on this project? How did you solve it?

The real hurdle was mapping out how to achieve innovative solutions. Activities like procurement and contracting are often siloed in transportation agencies and treated as check-the-box transactions, but administrative actions are essential to save time and money on projects and reduce risks while integrating ESG goals into projects. For the applied research, we customized case studies around critical issue areas identified through literature review, post-disaster experience and results from a survey of 100 AECOM disaster professionals. Washington State DOT focused on the Cascadia Subduction Zone (a 600-mile mega-thrust fault) and procurement, while Miami-Dade County analyzed impacts on water infrastructure and sea level rise (SLR).

Transportation agencies carry billions of dollars of embedded risk in assets, but pre-disaster readiness rarely feels urgent for busy professionals. To bring our message home, we gathered executives to provide first-person accounts in the guidebook on challenges and successes of leading catastrophic recoveries, including Tom Prendergast and Jim Weinstein, who led MTA and NJ Transit on Sandy recoveries prior to joining AECOM.

How has this experience shaped your approach to future work and expanded your career at AECOM?

Weather and climate disasters are no longer a question of “if”; now it’s “when.” We are helping transportation agencies reimagine systems to be agile. We helped one DOT cut its average RFP-to-contract time by 25 days. We are seeing tremendous ESG gains, especially in sustainable resilience and climate adaptation. And the concepts in the guidebook are closely aligned with the goals of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

This work will move quickly, catalyze the economy and respond to the climate crisis. Imagine if we’re successful in helping clients unlock the power of administrative tools like procurement and contracting to make infrastructure more equitable, sustainable, resilient and climate adaptive with higher social impact? That’s the art of the possible.

Originally published Apr 6, 2023

Author: Nicole Boothman-Shepard