Research Projects


by By Eric Tunell , MPL 2018


Photo by Yang Deng

Students interested in working in transportation at the federal level may find the process of getting involved daunting. With many different departments, agencies, and competing priorities--not to mention the changing whims of politics – it can be difficult to know where to start. To help students embark on the federal process, Eric Plosky, Chief of Transportation Planning at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, came to the USC main campus to share valuable insights (as well as encouragement) on February 22 as part of METRANS’s Lunch with a Practitioner speaker series.

Based in Cambridge, MA, the Volpe Center is part of the U.S. DOT’s Office of Research and Technology, and Mr. Plosky represents the Transportation Planning Division, one of 25 technical divisions at the center. In this role, Mr. Plosky works with federal agencies, state governments, metropolitan planning organizations and other groups on transportation policy, planning, and research.

One recent highlight shared was the Department’s Beyond Traffic report, commissioned by then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to analyze trends that will shape transportation over the next thirty years. According to Mr. Plosky, the U.S. DOT is generally so focused on day-to-day activities that there is rarely time for the organization to “sit around and ponder the future,” and Beyond Traffic was the first time in nearly 40 years that such a major plan was envisioned.

The report confronts some of the major issues facing our transportation infrastructure, including persistent underinvestment, aging equipment that is nearing or past its lifespan, and a framework of laws and policy that has not changed in decades. Now that the Interstate system is constructed (and is unlikely to be expanded) and the federal gas tax has been steadily eroded by inflation and increased fuel efficiency, investment decisions are more difficult to make than ever.

Of the $50bn spent per year by the U.S. DOT, greater than $40bn of the actual spending is done by states. Mr. Plosky reminded the audience that the decentralized funding and decision-making process is by design and based on legislative requirements, so determining what makes a “good” project – and evaluating whether a project had “good” results--depends very much on one’s point of view. As an example, a decision by one state to try to lure a business from another state may make a difference to those individual economies, but from a federal and national perspective the differences are small.

Despite the challenges faced by policymakers at the federal level, Mr. Plosky was enthusiastic about this being a great time to seek a career in national service. He highlighted the recent Smart Cities Challenge as another way in which the U.S. DOT is thinking progressively and encouraging innovation, and noted that as many current employees reach retirement age, there will be greater opportunities for advancement ahead.


Eric Tunell

Eric Tunell is a Master of Planning student in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He currently works for the METRANS Transportation Center, a joint partnership between USC and California State University Long Beach, and has worked previously in communications for the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving and for National Geographic. He can be reached via email or on LinkedIn.