Exploring Roadway Design with Robert Sutton

Exploring Roadway Design with Robert Sutton

March 4, 2019

Having recently joined Walter P Moore as a Team Director and schematic transportation expert, Robert Sutton brings over 40 years of experience to the table. Originally from Missouri, the Texas A&M alumnus has been instrumental in the development of major corridors in Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, and Denver.

Drawn to complex variables and arduous projects, Sutton has a few surprises up his sleeve. Read on to see what he has to say about schematic design, autonomous vehicles, and a dance floor.

What drew you to the world of engineering?
I have always been interested in large construction projects. Civil Engineering provided an avenue to partner in the design of large civil works.

What is the most interesting thing about working in schematic design?
Schematic design challenges in a wide range of subject areas—not just engineering. It requires the balancing of competing demands and working with a broad spectrum of people, often with conflicting needs or agendas.

What brought you to Walter P Moore?
I was in pursuit of a new venture; something that would push me to keep thinking about new ways to face transportation challenges.

What are some of your favorite projects to be a part of?
My favorites are those that don’t have a clear solution at inception. The chase for creative solutions is the element that I find most exhilarating. Most new alignment highways/tollways are really challenging; I have worked on a few railway projects as well.

Describe your most challenging project to-date:
Development of the schematic design for the Hardy Toll was the most challenging because it was one of the first on which I had significant responsibility. We fit the tollway into a developed part of Houston around a railroad connecting to existing interstate highways.

Describe your most successful project to-date and what enabled your success:
The extension of Loop1 (MOPAC) and SH 45 from US 183 to SH 130 in Austin has arguably been one of my most successful projects. I moved to the area and had an experienced, committed team to work with—largely contributing to the project’s success. The TxDOT project manager was also very engaged and committed to a fruitful project and we worked closely through some significant environmental, engineering, and public challenges. The project was fast-tracked through construction, completed in record time, and functions today as an important part of the transportation network in north Austin.

What is the most interesting technology that you have used on a project?
I thought Microstation and GEOPAK were amazing the first time I used it. LiDAR was magic because terrain that once had to be ground surveyed could be surveyed from a helicopter without sending surveyors into dense woods to cut line by hand. Computer simulations of intersection operations was a useful tool for showing audiences how traffic would or wouldn’t flow.

I think the best technology must be the graphic simulations with fly-throughs showing how our proposed projects look. It is sometimes difficult for people unfamiliar with reading plans to understand how an interchange will look. The new video fly-throughs allow them to see something only those that understood design could visualize previously. Even those of us that could, sometimes missed details that now show up as conflicts that will be resolved before construction starts.

What can clients expect from you?
In my role as a consultant, I will always give clients my best recommendations on a course of action, maybe with alternatives. I am always willing to provide further explanation and give them the benefit of my experience. Once they have made their decision, I do my best to carry out their wishes. (As long as their course doesn’t lead to something illegal or dangerous.)

How is roadway design changing the engineering landscape?
In the late ‘60s – early ‘70s the idea of forgiving highway design was born. The Texas Transportation Institute at TAMU, funded largely by TxDOT plus other state-supported research institutes, led the way in research and design practice development that has led to reductions in the rates and severity of vehicle crashes in the U.S. Highway design criteria has changed over time resulting in safer, more efficient roadways.

The next evolution in roadway/highway design will follow the introduction of autonomous vehicles. They will alter the way criteria are developed for design further enhancing roadway safety and efficiency. Mobility and congestion in our major cities will continue to challenge designers however, the operating characteristics of these new vehicles will increase efficiencies helping address these challenges.

Everyone is curious about autonomous vehicles. What are your views on this technology?
Autonomous vehicles are definitely a positive step in automobile development making automobile travel safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable for some. Humans are honestly not very efficient when driving. We become distracted, tired, perhaps drink too much, get bored, or our eyesight fails. These are just a few of the limitations a driver may experience as the controller of an automobile. Autonomous vehicles will be able to better operate and monitor the vehicle you’re riding in, vehicles around you, traffic conditions, weather conditions, and a variety of other factors contributing to safety and efficiency when operating your vehicle. I believe that riding in them will be much less stressful and safer than driving your own car.

However, there may be a downside of one day not being allowed to drive your own car. I like to drive and appreciate how a vehicle performs and behaves. Because humans will perform so poorly in comparison to the autonomous vehicles, we may be destined to only drive on special tracks reserved for “old-fashioned drivers” because we will be considered the more dangerous option.

Tell us something about Robert outside of the office:
A few years ago, a friend of mine encouraged me to take dance lessons. I didn’t want to, but he was insistent that it would be good for me and that I would enjoy it. Turns out he was right, and it has been quite an adventure. Not just about learning to dance, but about life and living; you can’t learn to dance by watching someone else.