Paul Trombino talks about his legacy as he steps down as director of Iowa DOT


This week (ends December 2) marked the end of Paul Trombino’s five and a half years in charge of Iowa Department of Transportation. Trombino, 50, unexpectedly announced he was going to move on earlier this month, probably to a transportation role in the private sector, after a successful time heading up the agency. He has not yet confirmed a new position as he said he was not comfortable job hunting while in a prominent public role, but is now reported to be fielding offers. Mark Lowe has just been announced as interim director for the department.

After a ‘false start’ to his working life in the finance and banking world, Trombino went ‘back to school’ to get a degree in transportation engineering. There followed 17 years at Wisconsin DOT where Trombino worked in construction, maintenance and in central office roles before being given the opportunity of a lifetime to head up Iowa DOT in May 2011. “It’s been a phenomenal experience for me,” Trombino told Traffic Technology Today. “I always told the governor that I thought I was having too much fun!”

One of Trombino’s key legacies is successfully adding 10 cents to gas tax in 2015, which was the first increase in the state since 1989 and will add around US$215m a year to state transportation funds. Money that Trombino emphasizes is key to maintaining and repairing Iowa’s ageing road network.

The power of data

Another of Trombino’s major achievements has been in freight management. Through clever use of data he has been able to radically improve efficiency in freight transportation through load consolidation and improved supply chain infrastructure.

“We have done the first ever supply chain design for an entire state. The state of Iowa,” Trombino tells Traffic Technology Today. “So we’ve collected data on all commodities that move, no matter what mode they move in. We’ve been able to use that data to create greater transport efficiency. I feel like we have the most robust database of freight commodities that exists in the United States, probably on the planet.”

Tombino’s system has added a new level to traffic management, now the department doesn’t only look at the volume of traffic and percentage of trucks on specific roads, it can also assess data on the commodities that are being carried in the trucks and look at whether loads can be consolidated, thereby reducing haulage costs and also increasing capacity on roads. “The more we understand commodity movement and its demands on the system, the more we can make adjustments in how we operate the system to improve its efficiency built around that demand,” says Trombino.

As well as load consolidation, Iowa DOT has begun working with a company that is providing refrigeration and freezer units at a midpoint in the state, so that truckers moving perishable foodstuffs can be certain their cargo will be properly preserved in the event of a delay. “It also gives us a consolidation point of access,” says Trombino. “So we cross the two pieces. If a business is looking to develop. We can actually do their entire supply chain design before they ever touch the ground. Whether its transportation costs, labor costs, facility costs. We can show them what those costs are and that gives them a much clearer picture before they build a facility.”

Right here, right now

Tombino has also set in motion a project, in association with mapping company Here, to create HD maps of Iowa’s entire highway system, which will further help freight movement in the future via autonomous vehicle systems. “We want to really open up that data and think about what the future of automated and connected vehicles is,” says Trombino. “We’ll layer that into all the freight stuff that we’ve done and really focus on how we can make an advanced freight system.

“We are also going to use Here’s cloud-based traffic information system in our TMC. And maybe even push that to dispatch centres for some of our large freight movers to give some real-time information exchange.”

“In the past we’ve mapped for drivers. But now we’re mapping for machines. What does that mean? How does that affect the construction and maintenance of the system? It will transform a lot of our processes. In the future I think we will actually serve that data up for contractors so they can consume that. We’re not going to need to plan, we’ll just give them the data. So it changes how we manage construction and maintenance. Using Here’s information what’s fascinating for us is asking, are people really driving that curve as we designed it? And the answer is, no. So there are likely to be changes we can make in how we design and maintain in the future, which makes it more cost effective.”

Looking to the future

As Trombino bids farewell to Iowa DOT, he leaves the department in good shape, and with some good ideologies to build on. Trombino is keen to stress that, while gathering data and putting it to good use undoubtedly has a strong economic benefit – “Who is the lead in economic development for your state? Do you know them? If you don’t, then you’re not connecting the pieces” – the aim of his department is not first and foremost to make money. “Our role is in data integration and collecting high-quality, machine-ready data, and convening that data. We’re a convener,” says Trombino. “So anybody can have access to that data and they can produce a better outcome on the system – and if they make a trillion dollars off it, great – but it creates a better outcome on the system and that’s exactly what our role is.”

Indeed, now there are number of other US states – notably Florida, Texas and Nebraska – that are picking up Iowa DOT’s freight management system and using elements of it to improve outcomes on their networks. “People say on the freight side we did a study. And I say, no, we built a tool,” says Trombino. “We built, essentially an algorithm for the state. This means if we revise the data every couple of years, which is what we’re doing now, and rerun the system, it’s going to give us new indications and information. And I think that’s true on the mapping side, the more you collect the information the more you get data pieces the better off you are.”

With this kind of forward thinking it’s clear that whoever is fortunate enough to secure Trombino’s services in the future will also be demonstrably better off.

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About Author


Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).