Environment and GIS in transportation planning–Meredith Stull (ETM), STV Engineering

Desk at the conference table in a small firm.
Since we were a small, growing office, my desk was actually a corner of the conference table.

I never pictured myself working in the transportation industry.  My dad has been a civil engineer for over 35 years, and growing up, I could see that he worked long hours (~80 hours per week) and he was often stressed about a pressing deadline.  I grew up thinking I knew a lot about the transportation industry, but I never made a connection between this industry and the environmental field.  I had a lot to learn.

When I started looking for an internship, I asked my dad for advice, since he has had his fair share of interns.  His advice was to emphasize my experience with GIS, and he was right!  In January of 2015, I landed a job at STV Engineering Inc., which happens to be a rival company of my dad’s engineering firm. While STV Engineering has offices across the country, I worked in a start-up office in Morrisville, NC.  When I first started, I was one of 5 employees and my supervisor was the regional planning manager.  She needed GIS support for project documents, and I was proficient with ArcGIS so she hired me on the spot.  I didn’t really understand the nature of transportation planning work at the time, but I slowly figured it out.

Most transportation departments at engineering firms consist of two groups: design and planning.  The design group drafts the plans and makes design-related decisions with transportation projects.  The planning group does everything else.  More specifically, the planners manage and carry out the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.  NEPA requires the consideration of the environment in any government-funded project.  Since most transportation projects are funded by the NC Department of Transportation (DOT), the NEPA process is very important.

My role at the beginning of my internship was very straightforward.  All I did was create GIS maps for NEPA documents.  As our office started to grow, STV started going after more and more proposals.  I was able to contribute by screening the proposed project study areas for potential issues with natural resources.  For example, I would look at the streams located in the study area, determine which ones were classified as critical, and report back to the engineers so they could scope the budget for the project.

By March, STV was overloaded with transportation planning projects.  This wasn’t a bad thing, but this did mean that we were very busy.  As a result, I was given more responsibility.  After 2 hours of training, I went from creating the figures for the reports to actually writing the reports.  Specifically, I wrote the document for what is called a Community Impact Assessment (CIA).  A CIA report includes analysis of community characteristics and how the transportation project could affect the community.  The characteristics include agriculture operations, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, historic properties, state/national parks, and environmental justice populations.

This was a completely new skill for me and at first I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Along the way I learned how to screen geographic areas for farmlands, how to research development projects in the area, how to define demographic study areas, and how to collect and analyze demographic data.  While these skills don’t necessarily involve an environmental technology degree, they do require the thought process of environmental analysis.  If this…then that…

While gaining experience with NEPA was valuable, I enjoyed working with GIS the most.  We were working on one project in South Carolina called Carolina Crossroads.  My job was to use Google Earth to define neighborhood and subdivision boundaries in the project study area, and create spatial data from these boundaries.

In another project, we were contracted by the towns of Fort Mill and Rock Hill SC to measure areas of growth within the towns.  By measuring population growth, we could plan which areas would benefit from transportation projects.  It was my job to gather the data and create maps that demonstrate the growth.  I called every single public and private elementary, middle, and high school, and recorded their enrollment numbers from the past 2 years.  I also called the top 20 businesses in the towns and recorded their employment numbers from the last 2 years.  Then I geocoded the data along with logged building permits to display the areas of growth in the area.

In addition to these major projects, I planned office happy hours, ordered the coffee, printed plans on the plotter, and made day trips to the STV Charlotte office to provide support there on occasion.  I was also expected create or edit various maps.  Sometimes it was figuring out now to display transportation data in a visual way, other times I was given an old map that needed some polish.

When I first started my internship, I didn’t view my internship as an environmental internship.  I figured I was working with GIS and using my knowledge of water quality on occasion, so this fulfilled my requirement.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that the transportation field and the environmental field are closely interlinked.  By learning about the NEPA process, I learned that the environment must be considered in every aspect of transportation projects.

I worked at STV for 8 months; 4 months part time and 4 months full time.  I was pushed beyond my comfort zone and I am so thankful for that.  Being treated like an entry level employee instead of an intern motivated me to work hard and learn as much as could along the way. I feel confident that I can apply the skills I learned at STV to the classroom and eventually, the real world.