Develop a project champion succession plan within participating organizations to avoid orphaning a project.
The Great Lakes ITS project management experience from a change in political leadership.
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United States

Great Lakes ITS Case Study and Lessons Learned for the Airport ITS Integration and Road Infrastructure Management System Projects Final Report, Wayne County, Michigan


In 2001, the U.S. Congress earmarked funds for selected projects that supported improvements in transportation efficiency, safety, traffic flow, reducing emissions, traveler information, alternative transportation modes, existing intelligent transportation systems (ITS), ITS integration, and promoting tourism. One such project was the Great Lakes ITS (GLITS) program in the Detroit, Michigan metropolitan area, which includes the Wayne County Road Information Management System (RIMS) and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport ITS Integration.

The RIMS Project is intended to integrate information currently gathered and stored in existing databases by various divisions within the Wayne County Department of Public Services (DPS) into one seamless system. Using a Web-based interactive program, the DPS and the traveling public can gain access to information on road conditions, construction project detours, and the real-time locations of DPS maintenance and snow removal crews.

The Detroit Metropolitan Airport ITS Integration project is intended to establish an airport traffic management center, which will be linked with the regional Michigan DOT traffic management center to optimize traffic flow in and out of the airport, as well as to optimize airport landside traffic flow to terminals and short-term parking facilities. The project involves the installation of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras and vehicle detectors to allow traffic and security personnel to monitor the entire airport roadway system. Dynamic message signs (DMS) will provide information to travelers to optimize passenger drop-off/pickup and short-term parking decisions.

Lessons Learned

ITS champions are essential for providing the vision and leadership necessary for advancing ITS concepts to fruition. However, if a project loses its champion, progress may be hampered or the project may flounder due to lack of leadership. In the worst case, the project may become an "orphan" waiting to be recognized and adopted by the new leadership. Unlike projects funded through state and local budgets where funds may be reallocated to other projects, ITS Earmark projects can remain orphaned for a number of years because the projects are initiated and partially funded by Congressional action. In many cases, implementation of these projects will require matching funding from local agencies. Consequently, to safeguard against orphaning a project and losing implementation momentum, the lead agency should develop a project champion succession plan and work with other project stakeholders to protect projects.

The GLITS Airport ITS Integration and RIMS projects have experienced a number of challenges that have caused delays. One of these challenges was a change in the political leadership, which affected the leadership within the Wayne County agencies responsible for portions of the Airport and RIMS projects. In 2003, a new Wayne County Executive was elected and project leadership positions at the Wayne County Roads Division and the Department of Technology changed. For the Airport project, the leadership change (in conjunction with other factors such as organizational changes) contributed to the project falling behind the original schedule and having little progress for several years. For the RIMS project, the loss of the Project Manager was less disruptive as the Assistant Project Manager moved into the leadership position.

The following are a few related leadership and staffing insights based on discussions with the GLITS management team.

  • Develop a succession plan that anticipates changes in the political environment if changes may adversely affect the project. The election of a new Wayne County Executive in 2003 resulted in a change of project management at the Wayne County Roads Division. The new management had new priorities, such as managing a budget deficit. As a result, the GLITS Airport ITS project lost much of the early deployment momentum and priority. Given that changes in the political environment are likely to occur during election years, projects benefiting from politically appointed champions should consider building public support and organizational structures that will foster continued support for the project.
  • Build relationships with organizations that can help identify candidates to fill personnel vacancies before the project is adversely affected. The contributions of key personnel are as important to a successful project as project champions and senior management. Similarly, the loss of key personnel can be just as detrimental to a project as the loss of a project champion or senior manager. Consequently, project managers should identify and cultivate relationships with other organizations, which may be helpful in identifying qualified candidates to fill personnel vacancies.
  • Prepare for staffing changes and reorganizations that can disrupt project progress. Whereas changes in the political leadership are likely to occur during election years, staffing changes and organizational changes may occur with little notice and can disrupt project progress. For example, prior to the spring of 2002, the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport was managed by Wayne County. However, in April 2002 the Wayne County Airport Authority (WCAA) became a separate agency responsible for the management and operation of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. The WCAA also had the power to plan, promote, extend, maintain, acquire, purchase, construct, improve, repair, enlarge, and operate the airport. As a result, WCAA wanted to control the funding for the GLITS Airport ITS Integration project. However, the creation of WCAA was not foreseen at the time that the 2001 Earmark funding was granted. Consequently, the formation of WCAA resulted in funding issues because WCAA was not allowed under federal regulations to control and distribute the highway funds.

Since its inception in 2001, the GLITS project management team for the RIMS and Airport ITS Integration projects have encountered a variety of situations that have challenged the development of the projects. The loss of a project champion due to changes in the political leadership resulted in changes in project management and other key personnel. This in turn contributed to delays in the deployment schedule.

This lesson suggests that project progress can be adversely affected by the loss of key personnel at all levels. Losing a project champion, who is a political appointee, can cause a project to flounder due to a lack of leadership. The loss of key project management or other personnel is also likely to slow the work necessary to complete the project. Given the importance of these individuals to the success of the project, the lead agency and other project stakeholders should consider developing a succession plan which will minimize the effects of losing key champions, managers, and personnel.

Great Lakes ITS Case Study and Lessons Learned for the Airport ITS Integration and Road Infrastructure Management System Projects Final Report, Wayne County, Michigan

Great Lakes ITS Case Study and Lessons Learned for the Airport ITS Integration and Road Infrastructure Management System Projects Final Report, Wayne County, Michigan
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Sanchez, Robert R. and Carol Mitchell
U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration
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