Study Provides Tools To Secure Rural Transportation Networks

Researchers in the Mack-Blackwell Rural Transportation Center at the University of Arkansas have completed a seminal study on the security of U.S. rural transportation networks. The study provides a low-cost and efficient tool to assess the vulnerability of rural transportation assets and will help officials develop and implement plans for emergency preparedness.

“Studying the security of rural transportation networks is important because most of the existing knowledge is based on transportation networks in urban areas,” said Heather Nachtmann, director of the transportation center and associate professor of industrial engineering. “So one of the goals of our research was to evaluate the scalability and adaptability of existing urban-based tools to the security of rural transportation networks.”

Although most existing transportation knowledge is based on urban areas, as Nachtmann indicated, a majority of America’s infrastructure is not urban. Roughly 83 percent of America’s land mass is classified as rural. According to the researchers’ study, 3.1 million miles of roads cut through rural areas. Nachtmann said these areas require evaluation and protection.

She and associate professors Edward Pohl and Richard Cassady evaluated many urban risk-assessment programs and chose to modify one developed by the Department of Transportation. They found significant differences between urban and rural contexts when assessing risks associated with natural disasters, terrorist attacks or possible disease outbreaks. Urban areas are more suited to developing responses to various risk scenarios -- that is, developing plans in response to a terrorist attack or hurricane, for instance, on a specific geographic area -- while planning for rural areas should focus on critical assets, such as bridges and dams, equipment, highways, riverways, railways and airways.

Concentrating on these assets allows rural transportation departments to focus limited resources, manpower and dollars on high-risk areas. For example, if a county has a bridge that serves in a critical area of interstate transportation, officials can conduct a risk assessment based on that particular asset. If the officials want to know what might occur should the bridge go out, the risk assessment tool guides them through steps to evaluate important data such as the amount of traffic that travels over the bridge, whether or not there is an alternate route and possible casualty rates.

Traditionally, federal money has gone toward research on the protection of urban infrastructure. The emphasis on rural transportation at the Mack-Blackwell Center, which the federal government recently designated as a member of the National Transportation Security Center of Excellence, allows researchers to break from the mold to find ways to make transportation systems safer for Arkansans and other people throughout the country who live in or travel through rural areas.

Although the geographic size of rural areas is enormous, rural counties and towns are less likely to have employees dedicated to road maintenance and security. This lack of manpower leaves vital transportation links vulnerable to disaster, whether from structural failure or terrorist attacks. For these reasons, the researchers wanted to find a way for rural infrastructure supervisors to assess risks by using as few employee hours and public dollars as possible. While rural transportation officials cannot plan for every possible contingency, the new assessment method will allow them to identify high-risk areas.

County emergency responders and planners can develop customized emergency response plans based on the critical transportation assets in their communities. For example, counties that primarily have river and rail crossings to protect will be able to use information from the matrix that relates to those specific areas of infrastructure. On the other hand, counties that have several bridges that are part of a major interstate will be able to assess the potential damage that could be done if one or more of those bridges failed.

The risk-assessment material will include a handbook to help transportation officials protect vulnerable transportation assets in their communities. “Arkansas is a natural laboratory for studying the security of rural transportation networks,” Nachtmann said. “In addition to the typical transportation assets, the state has access to inland waterways, major interstates and the Mississippi River.”

The researchers’ report, titled “Homeland Security for Rural Transportation Networks,” can be found at http://www.mackblackwell.org.

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