Getting to Know VTRC’s Director of Research: Catherine C. McGhee, P.E.

Cathy McGhee has been with the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC) since 1993. Before her current position, she was Associate Director for Safety, Operations, and Traffic Engineering, responsible for research projects that focused on enhancing the operation of Virginia’s highway infrastructure.

McGhee received her bachelor’s degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and master’s degree from the University of Virginia, both in civil engineering. She has held a professional engineer’s license in Virginia since 2004.

This year, VAA asked McGhee to take a few moments and talk with us about her career and thoughts on the asphalt industry’s future.

VAA→ Over the last 25 years, you have served in various roles within VTRC. Why did you want to become the director of research?

McGhee→ To be honest, I wasn’t always certain I wanted to be director. I’ve had a great career at VTRC, participating in so many really important studies and initiatives. I’ve been lucky to see changes in VDOT resulting from research I’ve been a part of and projects done by so many others at the council. And we’ve had so many amazing leaders over the years—every time one of them decided it was time to move on from being director, I couldn’t imagine who could come in and fill their shoes. But each leader has added something during their tenure that has made the council stronger, ensuring that it will continue to thrive and be a valuable contributor to making Virginia’s transportation system the best in the nation. When my turn came, I wanted to be a part of continuing that legacy.

VAA→ For the last few years, you have served in the Secretary of Transportation’s office and Director of Research for VDOT. How has the work done by VTRC transferred to the other transportation agencies?

McGhee→ I’ve said for a really long time that I have the best job, and having the opportunity to champion innovation across all the modal agencies has made that even more true. I have definitely realized that VDOT is incredibly fortunate to have a culture of innovation and an openness to positive change. I’m not saying that change is easy anywhere—I have a colleague in another agency who says, “Innovation is hard!”—but I do think the lessons we’ve learned through our implementation efforts are valuable as we look to encourage innovation in other agencies. In particular, identifying a champion within the implementing group is essential. There are also a number of areas where research conducted for VDOT is now crossing over to other agencies, including the use of unmanned aerial systems and data analytics.

Cathy McGhee and Mike Dudley at Virginia Pavement Research and Innovation Symposium

VAA→ Since March, what changes has VTRC made to protect staff and continue the critical research?

McGhee→ Like so many others across our industry, we sent as many of our employees home to work remotely as possible when the pandemic hit Virginia in March. But just like so many others, we have work that cannot be accomplished in a work-from-home setting. So our lab technicians have continued to work in the building but with significant steps taken to protect health and safety. We put strict limits on the number of people in the building, instituted face coverings and social distancing requirements, and reminded everyone to stay home if they don’t feel well. The summer months, when our folks were out on projects collecting field samples, were probably the most challenging. Balancing the need for social distance in vehicles with the desire to not send anyone out alone for safety reasons was difficult. But our people are resilient and have found ways to continue to get the work done. Thanks in large part to everyone’s diligence, we’ve been incredibly lucky and have had very few exposures or positive COVID cases.

Cathy’s Running Group

VAA→ With your background in traffic and operations, you have been heavily engaged in Connected and Automated Vehicles. How do you see the future of transportation being impacted by CAVs—both passenger vehicles and trucking?

McGhee→ I am a huge supporter of connected automation, but at the same time, I’m realistic about how soon we’ll see large numbers of fully automated vehicles moving around on our roadways. It turns out that the driving task includes many, many individual decisions and judgments that are not at all simple to convert into lines of code. As a result, we’ll likely see automation rolling out in places where those vehicles can be physically separated from traditional, human-driven vehicles. For example, dedicated truck or bus lanes will provide an opportunity for earlier deployments, as could managed lanes for passenger vehicles. We’ve all seen an increase in e-commerce during the pandemic, which has led to an increased interest in automated delivery vehicles and automated ride-sharing vehicles.

At one point, I think we all had in our mind a system that would see dramatically fewer crashes and less congestion as automated systems took over for human drivers. I still believe in the potential safety benefits (automated systems don’t get distracted!), but I’m less convinced we’ll see significant reductions in congestion, at least in the early days. The potential for automation to draw commuters away from traditional transit is real. Time will tell.

VAA→ To wrap up, what is one thing people who don’t know you will find interesting?

McGhee→ For many years, I’ve been running with a group of women. We all work full time, and when we started, we had children at home. Because of the many demands on our time, we started doing our weekday runs at 5:10 am. Three days a week, we head out with our flashlights and run the back roads of Madison County. We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife and rescued more than one abandoned kitten along the way. Since the pandemic started and my commute most days is reduced to a walk out the back door to my she-shed (custom remodeled garden shed complete with a deck for working outside when the weather is nice!), I’ve had more time for morning runs. In addition to my flashlight runs with the group, I’ve added solo runs on other days and have a running streak that currently stands at 215 days. Check back with me to see how long it lasts!

VAA→ Any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

McGhee→ Without a doubt, providing a safe, efficient, and effective transportation system requires partnerships across a diverse set of stakeholders. We don’t always see things the same way or agree on the exact steps to get us where we are going, but at the end of the day, we all have the same destination in mind. The partnerships the Research Council continues to have with the Virginia Asphalt Association and its members are vital to the progress we’ve made in increasing our roadways’ service life, safety, and performance. I thank you for all you have done and look forward to all we’ll accomplish together in the years to come.