Moving Toward Future Mobility: A Conversation with Jim Riley
Q: What do you believe are the biggest current challenges to transportation progress domestically?
It’s no secret that funding continues to be the biggest challenge. States are dealing with this every day on top of shrinking staff counts. A federal solution to the gas tax is likely not far off, but I don’t see it happening overnight. We can help clients be successful by educating them about the options they have today, whether that means using our interstate tolling analysis tool to give them a high-level model of tolling in their state, or discussing other alternatives such as mileage-based user fees or private financing to build projects.
Another question mark we’re all grappling with is emerging technologies, including connected and autonomous vehicles, how they impact infrastructure and how we get the most value out of them. It’s difficult for client owners to know where to begin and nobody knows exactly what will happen. With planning techniques like scenario planning, though, we’re helping clients find a starting point by defining the problem, anticipating policy changes and prioritizing action steps.
Before joining CDM Smith, I spent two years at the Ohio Department of Transportation, building its public-private partnership program. One of my takeaways from that experience is that DOTs and other agencies need more than just engineering advice. Most clients have engineering or planning backgrounds; they understand concrete, asphalt and physical infrastructure. Where I think we can add real value is helping them think more strategically about their challenges.
Q: Uncertainties aside, what do you think the optimal transportation system of the future looks like?
Starting with urban centers, it’s multimodal. It’s mobility-as-a-service. It’s about having flexibility and integrated mode choice. That’s how the newest generation expects to live, being able to go from transit to a shared ride to a last-mile electric scooter
When you look at moving traffic across the country, safe movement on interstates is first and foremost. Highways should accommodate connected and autonomous vehicles and could have managed lanes or exclusive lanes specifically for AVs or freight or buses.
How do we achieve that future? Any engineer or planner can draw it up and conceptualize it, but nothing will happen without policy change, from funding to right-of-way usage to where connected and autonomous vehicles are and aren’t allowed.
I think it starts with our history and track record as a comprehensive planning firm. Planning is the beginning of everything for our clients: budgeting, capital planning, project prioritization, how you simply meet your needs as an organization. Throughout our firm’s history, since the days of Wilbur Smith, we’ve established ourselves as thought leaders who help our clients envision the next evolution of their transportation systems. And we’re there to help them see that vision to reality, from concept to design to helping them manage construction to deliver quality projects on budget and schedule.
Our employees and their skillsets are the other big reasons we continue to deliver exceptional service. We’re able to have differentiating conversations with our clients, from the executive level down, because we understand their complex challenges and can bring a variety of multimodal and funding solutions to the table. And we continue to add strategic leaders to our team who can, for example, help our clients navigate policy issues or advance their thinking around alternative revenue options.
Q: A year and a half after you joined the firm, why was CDM Smith the right option for you?
The first thing that stood out to me was CDM Smith’s culture and commitment to being employee-owned. I also saw real opportunities with the transportation practice here. CDM Smith already had a great brand image in the transportation market, but there was still opportunity to grow. On top of that, the position’s focus on driving strategy and growth was exactly what I wanted.
When I interviewed, I spoke with our executive leadership team and came away with a lot of confidence in their commitment to building our transportation business. And a year and a half later, the role has lived up to its description. It’s been exciting, and I feel like I’ve been able to make a difference working with the team.
Nothing happens without policy change, from funding to right-of-way usage to where driverless vehicles are allowed.