Updated: Mar 25, 2020
For Tracey Frost, California state highways have always been synonymous with freedom -- and adventure. For the young girl growing up in the 1970s in Roseville, a small town about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, roads were the conversational backbone of walks and bike rides to school with neighborhood chums. During her teen years, highways became Frost’s escape route for car camping and RV adventures with her family, often to the Lake Tahoe region of California.
Through it all, she developed a deep and abiding respect for the grandeur of the outdoors, but also the fickle and potentially devastating effects of extreme weather events. Frost and her family once endured a blinding sandstorm while visiting relatives in Desert Hot Springs in the Coachella Valley region of California. And she’s never forgotten how quickly extreme weather events can shift familiar territory into zones of complete devastation, leaving communities shaken and inextricably altered.
Putting People First
Today, as chief of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Office of Smart Mobility and Climate Change, Frost leads an organization charged with ensuring the resiliency of state highways to severe weather events, and making them safe for any form of transportation – from cars, truck and buses, to bicycles, scooters and pedestrians.
“I’ve come to realize how important it is to preserve our #transportationinfrastructure for future generations,” said Frost.
A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Frost received her bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in economics. After a brief stop at the California Department of Finance, where she decided she did not want to be a certified public accountant, Frost found her way in 1998 to Caltrans’ Division of Budgets in Sacramento. There she began to meld her skills in finance and budgets with her lifelong love of the outdoors and transportation-enabled recreation.
Climbing Aboard Transit
Eventually, however, Frost moved over to Caltrans’ Division of Rail and Mass Transportation to work on agency programs. It was here, she claims, that she “really got into transit.” The job also helped her to rediscover her love of cycling. It included “field trips” for Frost, her Caltrans colleagues and their bikes on the Capitol Corridor, a 270-mile passenger train route operated by Amtrak between San Jose, Calif. and Sacramento.
“Our job was to figure out what it was like to be a commuter and not use a car,” said Frost. "That was an awesome experience.”
Those bike-n-rail trips also inspired her to become a regular bicycle commuter. Today, she rides four miles each way to her office in downtown Sacramento, using a car only on weekends.
Making a Plan
In 2010, Frost joined Caltrans’ Division of Transportation Planning, which includes her current office. The Division manages the agency’s transportation policies through partnerships with state, regional and local planning agencies.
Among her office’s most important activities is a series of climate change vulnerability assessments of California’s state highway system. Caltrans began work on the assessments in 2014.
“These studies are very exciting for Caltrans because they help us identify, by post mile, where our highways are most vulnerable to active stressors of climate change – heavy precipitation, wildfires, sea level rise, storm surges and coastline cliff erosion,” said Frost. “The work will help us reduce the potential cost of storm damage, and provide a reliable transportation network for everyone who travels in California.”
To date, Caltrans has completed and published vulnerability assessments for three of its 12 statewide districts. The agency expects to complete the remainder of the assessments by fall 2019. And while its formal mitigation plans are still in development, Frost’s team has identified several promising ways to combat the forces of climate change.
“To mitigate against road buckling, for example, we could design or upgrade a road with materials that are more resilient to extreme heat,” she said. “Or we might relocate or resize a culvert (pipe or similar structure that allows water to flow under a road) to assist with potential flooding situations.”
In the wake of last fall’s deadly wildfires in California, she added, Caltrans is now starting to use steel posts (which won’t burn) instead of wooden posts to construct guardrails along its highways.
All Climate Change Is Local
Caltrans, however, is not fighting climate change forces alone.
“Climate change is happening to everyone,” Frost points out. “It’s not just affecting state highways, and not just local roads. Our vulnerability assessments have been a great tool for engaging our local partners in conversation about climate change. There’s a strong nexus between what’s happening to the state highway system, and the vulnerability studies that cities are doing on their local roads.”
Making Mobility Matter
Frost and her team focus another significant share of their time on smart mobility and active (bicycle, pedestrian) transportation planning. The psychological core of that planning is Caltrans’ “Toward an Active California,” aka the State Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which was adopted in 2017. It includes the ambitious goal of doubling walking and triple bicycling trips statewide by 2020. To support these goals, Frost’s office works with Caltrans district planning officials and their local partners to develop district-level active transportation plans.
A corollary to these active transportation plans, she explains, is Caltrans’ focus on “complete streets,” i.e. road that are safe for transit by any form of transportation. Frost’s office works closely with Caltrans’ Sustainability Office to give momentum to this effort.
“We’re trying to create a state highway system that’s as multi-modal as possible,” said Frost. “We need to have viable options for everyone to use streets safely regardless of their mode of transportation.”
A typical day for Frost includes meeting with district representatives to review progress on their transportation plans; reviewing and editing the content of vulnerability assessments, and managing Caltrans’ involvement in transportation industry conferences.
“What’s really exciting about this work is working with smart, talented people, and being in a position to make positive, helpful comments about their work,” she said. “As a colleague of mine once said, ‘it’s always these little steps that lead to great things in the future.’”
Planning Ahead … Quickly
Indeed, Frost and her team are helping Caltrans identify and take the many small steps that will produce a successful integration of the California state highway infrastructure with the forces of climate change.
“I’m really encouraged by the progress we’re making in both active transportation and climate change to reduce high-level policies down to practical level documents that people can use to learn what they really need to do,” said Frost. "The work we’re doing is very exciting, and it can’t be done quickly enough.”
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