Well into a two-year, $4.6 million pilot to explore a new model for a Federal Highway Administration program that serves Native Americans, Beth O’Donnell and a team of dedicated trainers can take stock of how far it has come. The pilot runs until December 2019.

Although the Tribal Technical Assistance Program provides workforce training and resources much like other programs administered by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Virginia, it is unique in scale and in audience. The program, known as TTAP, serves the 573 federally recognized tribal governments across the U.S.

O’Donnell directs the program from the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which houses the Center for Transportation Studies. She and the program’s director of education and outreach, Walt Catlett, oversee the management staff, including logistics coordinator Valerie Rudman and 11 subject matter experts who collectively deliver a total of 92 transportation-related courses every month. Two additional subject matter experts are dedicated to a new certification program that launched in May 2019. The trainers also respond to all inquiries for technical assistance to coach clients through specific transportation-related challenges, such as building or improving roads, culverts and bridges or making roadways safer for pedestrians.

TTAP Subject Matter Experts gathered in Charlottesville from across the country for team-building and training.

“Significant, impactful and special,” O’Donnell said when asked to sum up how she and her team feel about the program. They’ve poured their hearts and souls into it, in part because it was a huge undertaking, but it’s also central to the Center for Transportation Studies’ mission and a good fit with its expertise. “Our goal has always been to create an infrastructure for the Tribal Technical Assistance Program that will live on beyond our tenure,” O’Donnell said.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian lands in the United States comprise 56 million acres ranging from the 16 million-acre Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to a cemetery on 1.32 acres in California. Many smaller reservations are less than 1,000 acres, according to the bureau — so it is easy to understand that the tribal governments, infrastructure and needs vary widely.

“Fulfilling the promise of TTAP means finding partners at each tribe and delivering content that is both technically and culturally relevant,” O’Donnell said.

It’s a big job, and the subject matter experts play an important role in the field.

The Federal Highway Administration’s mandate was to create five virtual centers of excellence — one for each curriculum area addressing an identified need: project delivery, maintenance and operations, safety, planning and procurement, and asset and data management. Two experts represent each center, delivering a four-day program of eight courses in a different Bureau of Indian Affairs region each month. Additionally, an injury prevention subject matter expert offers a Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Program in a similar format. Collectively they cover all 12 regions every month.

Catlett, the education and outreach director, is a longtime trainer at UVA’s Center for Transportation Studies. He is also a professional engineer and expert in instructional design as well as adult collaborative learning environments.

“Our subject matter experts are a special group,” Catlett said. “In addition to technical mastery, we were looking for people who could serve as ambassadors for the program while having the resiliency to deliver four days of high-quality training.”

Once O’Donnell and Catlett had interviewed and hired a subject matter expert, Catlett worked with her or him to develop the curricula and content for the courses they would lead. The highway administration then reviewed and approved the courses, he said.

“Andy Byra and his team in FHWA’s Center for Local Aid Support did a great job in reviewing the course proposals carefully while enabling us to meet tight deadlines,” Catlett said.

Kelly Powell, a certified National Child Passenger Safety technician and instructor, teaches the Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention Program. She spends at least a week a month away from her West Palm Beach, Fla., home and has traveled as far as Alaska for the Tribal Technical Assistance Program. Powell came to the program with 20 years of experience in motor vehicle injury prevention and child passenger safety training and program development. Her career has taken her across the U.S. and to Dohar, Qatar, where she helped Safe Kids Worldwide establish a self-sustaining program.

“My expertise is in helping organizations build programs that meet the needs of their specific communities and create sustainability,” Powell said. Wherever she has gone, Powell said her clients look for the same things.

MVIP car seat safety training in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“Our goal is to partner with the tribes to help them identify interventions that reduce motor vehicle injuries and fatalities in Indian Country. Together, we can protect our most precious cargo and save lives.”

Helping them advance their goals is what draws Powell to the program. “I love working with so many amazing people who work very hard to help their tribes. We are fortunate to assist in their journey, and help provide the tools they need to save lives,” she said.

More behind the scenes but equally important are people like Rudman, who not only prioritizes excellent customer service, she finds venues to hold every class, arranges travel for the subject matter experts and routes technical assistance calls.

Rudman, who was born and raised in Dallas, belongs to the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma and earned her Bachelor of Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Immediately after college, she was hired as an injury prevention coordinator and was certified as a Child Passenger Safety technician, servicing the Kaw, Ponca and Tonkawa tribes. She was back home in Dallas working as an office manager, leasing agent and dispatcher for a small company when she heard the Center for Transportation Studies at UVA was looking for a logistics coordinator for the tribal program.

“I was looking for a new challenge and this job meshed my previous work experiences together,” she said.

Valerie Rudman, TTAP Logistics Coordinator

Even with her background in transportation training and logistics, the complexity of the program was eye-opening. “I don’t think many people realize how huge it is. I knew how many tribes there are, but now I know,” Rudman said. “Everyone has their unique needs. The tribes are organized differently and everyone is so spread out. We work really hard to make sure our customers get what they need.”

She is constantly in touch with tribal members, looking for classrooms or registering attendees by phone — often late into the evening to accommodate time zone differences.

“I literally talk to someone in Alaska at least once a week. It’s really cool that we get to interact with all the different tribes. I am constantly learning about them, even just from phone calls, you pick up cultural differences. I didn’t think much about it prior to TTAP, but it’s been pretty cool,” Rudman said, adding, “Alaska has been the most fun to work with. It’s so different from Oklahoma and Texas.”

To put the Tribal Technical Assistance Program of 2018 and 2019 in perspective, it’s helpful to consider its history.

According to the Federal Highway Administration’s website, since 1982 the agency has provided access to surface transportation technology, technical assistance and training to local public agencies to manage their highways and roads. In 1991, the entity providing these federal resources became known as the Local Technical Assistance Program. Every state has its own “LTAP”; the Center for Transportation Studies at UVA administers Virginia’s. The Tribal Technical Assistance Program was created for localities run by tribal governments.

Recently, the tribal program was restructured and implemented as a two-year pilot. The highway administration awarded the contract to UVA’s Center for Transportation Studies in December 2017.

The first four-day training session was delivered four months later on March 20, 2018.

Safety training in Chinle, Arizona

Since then, the program has offered more than 1,000 courses, training more than 5,200 attendees and delivering over 20,000 training hours. Subject matter experts have also provided technical assistance for projects ranging from mapping roads to helping develop a road safety plan.

UVA’s commitment, in addition to the core curriculum courses and the injury prevention program, extended to developing a Road Scholar Safety Certification Program. To fulfill the requirement, in the fall of 2018 O’Donnell’s team opened a facility in Oklahoma City where workers demonstrate proficiencies through a series of assessments. Each assessment module evaluates an experienced tribal transportation worker’s knowledge and practical skills on a specific construction or maintenance topic.

O’Donnell’s team also has deployed 22 four-week, instructor-led online classes, as well as companion classes in a two-hour, self-paced format. The instructor-led courses are facilitated by a subject matter expert and students actively engage online through discussion forums and practical exercises.

“With almost two years of program data at this point, the Federal Highway Administration can make decisions about what classes might work as online-only options,” O’Donnell said. “That would free resources to add new classroom subjects while expanding technical assistance to respond to tribal needs.”

Devin Harris, an associate professor in UVA’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and the director of the Center for Transportations Studies, said he sees the Tribal Technical Assistance Program as a prime opportunity to extend the center’s expertise to a new audience.

“In my time at UVA, the center has always excelled at educational and training activities and TTAP represented an exciting opportunity to apply our model to a new program,” said Harris, who has a Ph.D. in civil engineering.

Harris substitute taught a bridge maintenance and management course in Ketchikan, Alaska, for the tribal transportation program. It was rewarding, but also a reminder that it is a big, intricate undertaking, he said.

“As a program, we maintain a great deal of technical expertise and the interest from the communities who can benefit from the training we offer is there,” he said.

“The challenge is finding the mechanisms to connect with them, and logistics in complex regions such as Alaska. The Center for Transportation Studies at UVA has a long history of developing training models and delivering them at a high level. I am proud of the work we are doing on this important federal program.”