Feature Stories

Driving Force: Mike Walton Steers Responsible Transportation Policy


photo of Mike Walton with road and buildings in background

In his 35 years at The University of Texas at Austin, transportation engineering Professor Michael Walton has led transportation research, shaped public policy and impacted students' lives along the way.


In 1985, because of his research in freight systems and surface transportation engineering, Professor Michael Walton was asked to help bring together officials from trucking companies and government agencies. The two were in the midst of a heated debate over proposed plans to charge freights based on their weight and distance traveled.

States could choose to join the system, and trucks in those that qualified would be equipped with a transponder that relayed information about the vehicle and accessed a secondary database on the carrier – such as whether it passed previous inspections or whether its owners kept up with taxes on the vehicle. Trucks in the system that complied with federal and state safety standards would be allowed to bypass weight stations along the highway instead of stopping.

Walton, whose research at the Cockrell School of Engineering helped develop the system, said it was a win-win for both groups. Truck drivers could save time, money and fuel and the government would increase safety on highways by reducing congestion. It would also make weight station inspections more efficient because only at-risk trucks would be forced to stop.

But some trucking companies saw the system as a conspiracy to tax them, and the fight was so explosive that, on the evening before his interview as advisor to the project, a fist fight broke out between a California trucking representative and an Arizona government official at a hotel gathering.

"I thought, 'What the hell am I getting myself into?'" Walton said.

But today, thanks largely to Walton’s leadership and ability to unite the groups, half a million trucks are now in the system and 30 states – most recently Texas – have joined. The project is one of the first intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in the U.S. and has an annual revenue of $400 million.

Those that know Walton well, from his students to colleagues at national transportation agencies, say no person in the transportation field is more accomplished than he at bridging academia with industry, policy and government. The anecdote above is just one testament to that skill.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find any academic that’s touched so many different sectors of the transportation field," said Robert E. Skinner Jr., executive director of the Transportation Research Board (TRB), one of six major divisions of the National Research Council that serves as an independent advisor to the United States President, Congress and federal agencies on scientific and technical questions of national importance. "It's hard to be active in the field if you're just staying in your office. You almost have to interact with the people who are players in that world if you’re going to be effective in it, and – if you look at things he's done just in Texas – he couldn't do that if he was just sitting in his office working on scholarly papers."

Steering responsible policy

Walton, originally from Hampton, Va., has achieved success doing both at The University of Texas at Austin's Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

Since joining the university 35 years ago, he's contributed more than 400 publications, taught countless students, provided consulting services both here and abroad and shaped important transportation policy by serving on a number of boards – from past chair and member of the TRB Executive Committee, to past board chairman of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), a national federation of public and private transportation construction interests with more than 5,000 members headquartered in Washington, D.C.  He is a founder of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a past chair of the board and in the inaugural class of the "ITS Hall of Fame."

"In our 109-year history, he’s the only academic leader who became chairman of the board, which is very insightful about who Mike is," said Pete Ruane, president and CEO of ARTBA. "That's what makes Mike rise to the top even more because [to be chairman] you really have to be able to communicate across all kinds of boundaries and sectors and do it convincingly and gain respect and support of a wide variety of public, private and educational interests."

Walton, who is modest, funny and self-deprecating at times, traces his first encounter with engineering to his childhood in Virginia. He grew up near a NASA facility and was enamored by the sputnik race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After serving four years in the Army, Walton studied transportation engineering in graduate school and then interviewed at the university for a job as a professor.

"When I came to Texas, I fell in love with it," he said. "I left the interview, and I knew if they made me an offer I was coming."

In addition to teaching in the 1970-80s, Walton chaired the city's urban transportation system for 10 years and helped get legislation passed that allowed for the creation of Capital Metro, Austin's first and only public transportation provider that now boasts the highest per capita ridership in Texas.

But one of Walton's most important roles in shaping the city and state's transportation future could be happening right now in his elected role as chairman of the Texas Department of Transportation's "2030 Committee."

Comprised of experts in business and transportation, the committee is overseeing a comprehensive update of Texas transportation needs through the year 2030.

A recent report by the group found that current funding for Texas' transportation system is unacceptable, and that the state must invest more in roads, bridges and congestion relief to ensure a successful transportation system or Texans will pay significantly more in the long run. The report was used by lawmakers to decide on crucial transportation laws during the 82nd Legislative session, and seeks to develop long-term funding solutions that help relieve traffic congestion and repair deteriorating roads.

"We can't build our way out of congestion and the average person recognizes that we'll probably never be able to do away with it," Walton said. "But we can make smart decisions starting now that alleviate some of the problems."

Most of the research Walton does now is aimed at that. His research focuses on intelligent transportation systems (ITS), which use information and communication technology to improve safety, reliability and productivity of transportation.

Among the benefits of ITS, travelers gain comprehensive and accurate information on travel options, such as transit travel times, schedules, cost, and real-time locations; driving travel times, routes, and travel costs; parking costs, availability, and ability to reserve a space; and the environmental footprint of each trip.

Leaving a legacy among students

Walton's transportation expertise and experience has taken him from boardroom to classroom, and along the way he's made friends with peers in both settings.

"It's been a rewarding experience, not so much to the ego part, but for the fact you meet so many people and develop friendships," Walton said. "From being involved with a diverse group of activities, whether professional organizations, industry groups or serving on board of directors, I often wonder, 'What am I contributing?' because I'm learning so much in the process."

For his students and the transportation sector, the answer is obvious. His connections around the world have helped students land dream jobs and he's steered U.S. transportation policy nearly every step of the way.

Erin Flanigan, one of Walton’s former students who now works in Washington, D.C. as program manager for a transportation consulting firm, said Walton brings his national expertise and insight into the classroom – though, because of his modest personality, many students are unaware of his prominence at the national level.

“Students don’t realize how well-known he is nationally and throughout the state until they become professionals and realize that everybody in transportation knows Dr. Walton, and they greatly respect him,” Flanigan said.

Since obtaining her degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 1994, Flanigan visits Walton when she comes to Austin. “His door has always been open for his alumni and his students,” she said.

Former student Jason West said one of the defining moments of his time at the university was deciding whether to pursue a dual degree program from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

"When I came to Dr. Walton with the idea early in my first year at UT, his enthusiasm gave me the confidence to move forward with the dual degree program," West said. "It was clear to me as a student that he has a sincere interest in alumni, and I am appreciative that he continues to be a mentor."

Most recently, Walton represented the U.S. for a discussion in Taiwan about plans to design and construct a "smart highway" using ITS technologies. While there, he met with students of former students, some of whom call him the "Grandfather."

"I tell my students that money is not everything. The reward comes from getting up in the morning and being excited about what you're going to do that day," Walton said. "Be passionate about everything you do."

No doubt, Walton has done just that.

Michael Walton holds the Ernest H. Cockrell Centennial Chair in Engineering.