US Transportation Infrastructure: Today and Tomorrow

Roundtable features senior practitioners engaging in open discussion on the most pertinent issues facing the infrastructure industry both today and tomorrow. This edition serves as a follow up discussion to the first Roundtable discussion (Volume 4, Issue 1, June 2010), which featured David Gehr, Hal Kassoff, and Steve Lockwood. This edition adds Roy Kienitz to the mix, as they opine on the current state of U.S. transportation infrastructure and speculate on its near and long-term future.

Rolando Amaya (RA): Since our last discussion, a new surface transportation authorization, MAP-21, was passed. Atthe time, there was pessimism for the prospects of a new authorization passing during President Obama’s first term. What are your thoughts on MAP-21? What are its strengths? How about its shortcomings? As a two year funding authorization, what would you like to see in the next reauthorization bill? What’s most realistic? 

Hal Kassoff (HK): With its flat funding and two year duration, MAP-21 looks more like a short-term extension/continuing resolution of action than a full fledged reauthorization.

On the other hand, from a policy and programmatic perspective, MAP-21 is transformational. Many have compared it to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) in terms of its significance in changing the course and the character of the federal transportation program. MAP-21 simplifies surface transportation program categories, streamlines project delivery, and places an emphasis on performance measurement requirements and accountability.

With increased flexibility in the application of tolls and managed lanes, to the expansion of the TIFIA program, MAP-21 does a lot of very positive things. While it doesn’t solve the financial problem, for a two-year bill it certainly goes a long way in advancing the fundamental character of federal transportation policy and programs.

David Gehr (DG): MAP-21 does do a really good job in addressing a lot of the programmatic changes that have needed to be addressed for many years. However, on the funding side, it is lacking. I really would have liked to see greater flexibility in the usage of tolling and congestion pricing as tools for states to tackle their funding problems.

Acknowledging that this sort of thing is difficult in a reauthorization bill, another shortcoming with MAP-21 is that it doesn’t really reflect any kind of a national vision for transportation. It doesn’t tell us where we want to be or what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s important to articulate a vision in these policy pieces to help ensure that we’re actually implementing policies that will eventually get us to where we want to be. Right now, we’re living that age-old story where we don’t know where we want to be, but we’re hopeful that we just might get there anyway, in spite of everything else.

I'm hopeful that, in the next authorization, in addition to addressing the funding problem, there will be dialog and debate that will lead us to coalesce around a national vision for transportation in addition to a definition of the federal interest as a part of that national vision.

Roy Kientz (RK): Whether MAP-21 was well done or not is a question to which we do not yet have an answer. I fear we will not have an answer by the time two years is up, at which time we’ll need to revisit whether or not to continue it. A fundamental theory driving MAP-21, born after SAFETEA-LU, is to get rid of categorical programs, which are a method by which we assure that certain amounts of money are spent on certain things. In exchange for that we established the authority at DOT to begin defining how to measure performance. Local, state or federal government will then pick the goals. We will then track our progress against those goals. Theoretically, this will lead to adjustments as we pursue those goals.

We have absolutely no idea whether the theory of that will turn into reality. If it does it would be a fascinating and wonderful thing to actually have a federal program which gives out very large amounts of money where progress is tracked, and based on the results of the tracking, behavior changes.

If it doesn’t work, what we will have done is gotten rid of the minimum levels that direct certain minimum amounts of dollars to certain activities, and replaced it with nothing that does anything. That will give credence to the constituency that wants to do whatever it wants with its federal funding with no strings attached. There’s definitely an argument to be made for that as a fundamental basis for the program. However that ideology is not consistent with MAP-21.

That takes us to the final part of the question which is, “What should we do when MAP-21 expires?”

The principle question is should we continue forward with this performance tracking basis for guiding the distribution of federal dollars? The first question people will ask for an answer to that is, “Well how’s it going?”

I fear the answer will be, “Too early to tell; we have no idea.”

HK: As Dave pointed out, MAP 21 did not provide a vision for the transportation program. I question whether seeking such a vision is practical in the current political setting. Visions cost money, particularly exciting visions that inspire and require political support and widespread voter support. Building the Interstate Highway System stemmed from a bold, and what turned out to be an expensive vision. Thankfully we had the political will to pay the price right through to completion. It’s clear that the same kind of political will does not exist today. A good example is high speed passenger rail. When Americans travel to Japan or travel to France and experience their high speed rail, they come back home and say “we should have this”. But then when such a vision is subjected to the meat grinder, pressures for minimizing government and cutting spending, political support for visionary goals seems to dissipate.

It may be that establishing a national vision for transportation that has any chance of resonating in today’s political climate must take a more modest turn toward certain, less inspiring but no less important fundamentals. For example, the one that we are hearing more about from certain groups is as basic as reaffirming the importance of the federal role in interstate commerce as established in the Constitution of the United States, but in a 21st century, global context. In response to the competing vision that some have advocated to devolve the federal role in surface transportation to the states, the question becomes whether we can afford to be the only industrial developed country in the world where the national government plays little or no role in shaping transportation policy and a transportation future. Interstate – indeed, international commerce, is so vital to our standard of living and our quality of life, and so impossible to address by the collection of individual states acting in their own unique interests, it seems pretty obvious that it must be addressed from a national perspective with a significant federal role. It represents an issue that quite possibly business, labor and environmental groups, and most importantly, Democrats and Republicans might find persuasive.

It may not be the most inspiring of visions, but at a time when grand governmental aspirations are not in vogue I think it may be enough to fend off devolutionary pressures in the successor to MAP 21 while hopefully driving funding to a level that will allow us to preserve what we have and perhaps improve it.

DG: When we built the interstate system, there was a definite federal vision. That vision has since blurred because the interstate system has changed, into as much a local system as it is a national system in terms of the service it’s providing.

I think that’s why it has become so difficult to get consensus from all of the different stakeholders, interest groups, and everybody else over what the vision ought to be. It comes down to defining the federal interest behind federal investment decisions. The federal interest can be international trade, commerce, defense, or homeland security. It’s those kinds of things that define the federal interest, more so than access to the local community park which serves more of a local, regional, or state interest. I agree that even with that there are going to be some fuzzy lines between the two. But it is imperative to try to articulate that the federal interest is important and from that, define the federal vision that it supports.

RK: I think there’s another way to ask that question. By changing one word you can end up with a quite different answer. Instead of saying, “What is the federal interest?”, you ask, “What is the national interest?”

The two questions have a very different understood meaning in the policy community. Federal interest raises the question of what the federal government should and shouldn’t do. Then we have to figure out which side of the line our proposals are on.

When we discuss the national interest, we identify those interests and then ask if the federal government can effectively pursue them, and if it can, will it be cost effective. When I ask myself what’s in the national interest, one of the things I come up with is climate change. What is the most effective way to do something about it? Climate change is one of those fascinating things where there are certain really big things we can do that need large amounts of money at the federal level: alternative energy, raise standards for automobile fuel economy, build solar farms, etc.

But actually many of the most cost effective ways to do something about climate change are really small and under a traditional definition would be called local. Replacing 30% of trips under 1.5 miles currently taken by automobiles with walking or bicycling would have actually a very large effect on climate change emissions. Policy changes encouraging that behavior could easily be viewed as not part of the federal sphere because they are essentially local. They’re sidewalks, bus lines, and bike sharing.

That doesn’t answer the question, “Where should the federals and the locals and the state apportion funding?” That’s an important question, but it’s not the only question.

HK: The national interest implies something we all need to get behind. The question is whether, in the absence of a strong federal role, the sum total of state and local actions, taken in their individual interests, can add up to what is in our national interest? The answer seems obvious to me.

Consider urban transit, which is rather easy to classify as a local issue. Yet economists, both liberal and conservative, agree that the nation’s economy is driven by activity that’s occurring in metropolitan regions in our country. One of the great successes in this country – particularly from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s when cities were declining to the point where it wasn’t clear that they would survive – is the revival of most urban areas. So here’s the question on public transportation. Most would agree that great cities need a public transportation system to support the kind of density inherent in an urban economy and life style. And while not everyone wants to live and work in such a setting, virtually everyone benefits from the success of cities. So the question is where’s the national interest? How do you defend public transportation as being strictly a local or perhaps a state issue when the viability of our nation’s economy is intertwined with the viability of our large urban areas? In the current political environment, I thought that the bipartisan reaction against curtailing support for public transportation in the debate leading up to MAP-21 was very telling. Clearly the majority thought that federal support for urban transit is in the national interest.

Steve Lockwood (SL): What you’re saying is very logical from a theoretical, good government point-of-view. However, we’re in a very different environment now that’s going to take a very different kind of thinking.

First, things are really not that bad in most places, especially when you look at it from a national perspective. Service and conditions have been holding their own. Economic slowdown and other economic factors have reduced the rate of increase in traffic demand, which had created a cloud of panic over the last 25 or 30 years in the professional community as we tried to catch up. Physical conditions are being gradually improved. These are all things that made us worry about our backlog and whether we’d ever catch up – but the numbers don’t look so bad.

Second the public policy constraints are different and extreme. One of the constraints is low public expectations regarding the quality of transportation services and the ability of the public sector to improve it. As a result, there’s not a clamor for improved service in most areas of the country. There’s generally little belief that the public sector or the private industry can produce something that’s significantly better and worth spending time and money on. This is reflected in part by the low priority of transportation. It’s been this way for a decade or so in most places. The dramatic exceptions to the unwillingness of the public to support generic transportation tax increases are the places where local bonding is sold on the basic of specific proper name improvements.

Third, the reluctance to impose new taxes is not going to go away. I’m not going to argue about user fees versus taxes because people see it all as tax. Also, there are a lot of other competing issues that are much more on the public’s minds than transportation.

None of this is to deny the theory of what you’re saying or the rationality of your perspective regarding national and/or federal “interests”. It’s just that the reality is that we must find a more acceptable, feasible way to accomplish them – a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches and a mix of funding sources. I just think that we need to be creative about thinking of ways that are more reflective of some of the constraints that we’re dealing with at the national level. Last year I did a study for FHWA that shows how consistent tolling of toll-feasible congested interstates would essentially permit the current level of federal aid to address many of the other, non-tollable challenges.

HK: This is not theoretical.  You can see what is happening and you are right that much of the action is from state and local governments. In fact, surface transportation is viewed by most citizens as largely of state and local interest, and the states and locals are increasingly taking command of the situation. Look at the recent actions of states at the opposite ends of the political spectrum: both Virginia and Maryland, as well as Wyoming and Vermont, passed new transportation funding packages. We’re seeing state after state looking seriously at transportation funding increases. About two-thirds of local and state transportation funding initiatives that go on the ballot each year somehow seem to pass.

Recent work we did for AASHTO included focus groups in four cities. Those groups showed that while people were losing faith in what the federal government could do, they had faith that their problems were local and that they could do something about them locally.

The American people want good transportation and have demonstrated time again that they’re willing to pay for it at the state and local level when the needs are clear and there is confidence that they will get what they pay for. Having said that, the largest single source for transportation funding is federal. There are very few who believe that if devolution succeeds the states or local areas will pick up the slack across the country. Amazingly, big business and labor have gotten behind the need for increasing federal support – the American Trucking Association supports a fuel tax increase which it has never done before.

States and local areas can help show the way. We’re seeing an increasing interest inside the Beltway in grassroots initiatives as the only way to change Washington. It’s going to have to come from the reality that most Americans experience back home, and manifest at the ballot box when they support candidates whose position on transportation resonate with them.

SL: We are moving to an environment where most of the investments, most of the creativity is going to be at the local and state level without much regard to “national interest”. For example, in California the federal aid program plays a very small part and there’s not much interest in federal or national issues. They are spending a lot of money on specific projects that local people have identified as needs. We used to call this “devolution” with sort of a negative connotation, but it is very much part of our future. We should be thinking hard about how to capitalize on those energies and those creativities.

RK: This is perhaps a debate on the question about what is likely versus what is desirable. On one hand, Hal and Dave are making the point that a national program with national goals is a desirable thing and the things standing in the way of it are frustrating. Steve’s point is “this is the situation we’ve been dealt, we have to deal with it.”

Those two things are not necessarily inconsistent. There are two things happening here. First we had a national consensus built around the interstate program and a national financing strategy in order to build it. Now we’ve finished doing that, and we’ve entered this interregnum between two significantly different approaches to transportation.

Second, there are the social trends. Previously, the total vehicle miles traveled every year went up like a laser with no inflection point, along with driver’s licensing and population growth.

That was our background reality which was unchanging, and therefore all projections were made on the basis of it; except now it has changed. The amount of driving people do per capita peaked at the end of 2004. We have had a decline in that number every single one of the last eight years. Now we’re back at the per capita level of driving that we had 14 years ago. I don’t know when we’ll find the inflection point and it’ll start going back up.

We’re lacking in agreement over whether there’ll be a federal program, is it desirable, what’s our national interest, would we pursue a more urban transit oriented multi-mobile policy, would we get back to basics that only fund interstate commerce, what would we do? We have this other reality going on which is the country’s re-urbanizing and driving is going down. The assumption that traffic will grow 1.5% per year from now until the end of time can’t really be made anymore. The combination of this lack of consensus about goals, while there’s a change in the underlying factors affecting the system, is going to lead to a continuing period of lack of consensus. But this lack of consensus is not necessarily permanent. We thought the last situation was permanent and then it changed, and so I don’t think we should think this situation is.

SL: There’s a bridge between the two perspectives – the “likely” and the “desirable” that needs to be thought through. There’s no question that there exists something that everybody would agree is “federal and national” in nature. The real question is how expansive that definition needs to be. Given our current trend, I would suggest two things: first, a focus on the smallest reasonable core program that requires federal action and therefore federal resources. Second, capitalize on – and leverage -- the synergies that are coming from state and local thinking.

This is a very different way to think about it. We’ve had all of these studies and huge numbers were generated, but nobody really said, “You’ve got $30 billion to spend period in today’s dollars; what’s the best way to spend it?”

This line of questioning forces you to consider not just critical systems with a federal interest – but how they can be met in a variety of ways that don’t involve federal taxes – performance focus, improving operations, or using hybrid forms of financing. Technology is going to contribute to this: smaller connected vehicles with higher densities and reduced footprints, near-zero fatalities even with higher speed, substantially improved reliability with aggressive system management and operations. The solutions will differ from place to place – radically and creatively – as we’ve been seeing. I think that’s the world we’re in.

HK: No question that we need to be efficient with what we have, and that the federal program needs to be sized to what is the core federal interest. The pressure for a larger, more effective national program must come from grassroots movements as voters perceive there are growing transportation problems which state and local sources alone are inadequate to address. I’m not aware of many who would be satisfied that $30 billion for highways is sufficient – especially when MAP 21 included the largest expansion of the National Highway System since its inception.

Congress seems to be out of easy tricks to maintain the highway program at about $42 billion and to maintain the transit program at about $11 billion, yet every time the chips are down they have come up with a solution.

Am I optimistic that we're going to fund a massive expansion of the federal program? No I'm not. But am I optimistic that we're not going to allow the program to implode as the current numbers for 2015 indicate it will? Yes, I'm optimistic that that will not happen.

RA: The Congressional Budget Office’s score of MAP-21 indicates that, at current funding levels, the Highway Trust Fund will be insolvent by 2015. The current means of funding infrastructure is not working. What do you see as the most likely short to medium term solutions to our infrastructure funding problem? Are states accepting that they’ll need to fund infrastructure improvements themselves? Ignoring politics, what would you like to see?

RK: Upon enactment, MAP-21 ended the period of time in which people at the state and local level said “we're not going to do anything about our own financial problems because we're going to wait to see what happens at the federal level.”

The wait is over and the result is more of the status quo; hence you have seen a huge increase in the level of activity and interest at the state level.

States that haven't raised funds in ten or 20 or 30 years are doing it: from Maryland to Virginia and Wyoming, potentially Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and a bunch of others.

The funding vacuum created by the federal government is being filled by elected state and local level officials agreeing on which tax the majority of them dislike the least, then imposing it, putting it in a fund, and finally spending it.

SL: Roy makes an important point: there has been a stall out both inside the Beltway and in many (not all) states –presuming an eventual “return to normalcy” regarding the federal level of support. One very big and critical change we’re seeing is that the locals are creating these extra funding sources for large scale, widely vetted projects with widespread local support. That is the core of future highway program development. To the extent that they can come about with local option taxes, other sales taxes on fuels and other goods, tolls, congestion pricing and so on, the more projects they can deliver. I see this evolving over the next 20 to 25 years. There will still be a federal role, but it will be substantially reduced and will probably have a lot more creativity in the development of multi-modal transportation systems. There are some important footnotes because there are some places in the country where everything I've just said doesn't necessarily work.

This new model is very different from the one that we have been living with. Trying to recreate or maintain that older model is not the best use of the creative energies of people in the profession.

HK: Everyone at the table would agree that the program 30 years from now is not going to look anything like today. MAP-21 is quite a departure from the program back in the 1990s. Also, we agree that there have been dramatic changes in the program largely because of creative pressures coming from state and local governments.

Let’s consider the future of public transportation. I think most state and local DOTs have come to recognize that without a viable transit system their highway system gets overwhelmed and becomes even more dysfunctional. I predict we'll hold to current funding levels because anything less will undermine surface transportation significantly. On average, federal funding covers 45% of highway capital investment across the country. A significant dip would devastate the transit program, particularly rail transit in our largest cities which depends heavily on federal support for capital improvements.


That combination leads me to conclude that we simultaneously have had a ceiling and a floor on federal surface transportation spending, and I don't see that changing. Now, with the current revenue outlook, of a floor that might collapse in 2015, or a ceiling that might be raised as part of a so-called Grand Bargain, clearly something has to give. But when the dust clears I’ll be quite surprised if federal funding is vastly different from today’s levels.

RK: I would say that the easiest prediction for anyone to make about any phenomenon at any time is that tomorrow will be just like today except a little bit different. The thing about that is that is actually always the best and most likely prediction except when one day something significant happens and things change. I agree with you that that is the right prediction for the short term and maybe even for the medium term. In the long term, something is going to change.

We have little inklings about what that change event will be and what direction it will take. I'm a big believer in a multi-modal system, particularly high-speed rail. I believe urban areas of the United States to be the engines of the economy, so making them more efficient is in our fundamental national economic interest as they are regions that require heavy transportation intervention. I'm hoping we're looking for something that's a little more functional and a little less chaotic.

To take our hands off the wheel just doesn't make urban areas work. All urban areas are planned to some degree and I think our economic well being rests in continuing to do that. That doesn't mean I think that the rest of the country agrees with me. But I think more agree with me than agreed with me five or ten years ago. So I'm hopeful.

SL: The highway funding conundrum from a national interest point of view is a lot simpler to think about than transit funding. I'm a more or less a “highway guy”. I’ve always driven to work except when I lived in London. Now I take local MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter) train. It's a 70-mile trip and costs me $4 in each direction (senior fare). The passenger mile cost of that trip must be approximately $30 in each direction. I'm getting a $50 a day subsidy. Most urban transit doesn't cover operating costs. On the highway side application of engineering economics always appears to be straightforward in terms of public policy: we talk about tolls and user financing and whether user fees are covering the cost. Meanwhile on the transit side-- which is critically important and getting more important -- we haven't addressed a way to pay for the government subsidies.

Given the recognition of the importance of mega-regions to the US economy, the modal role issue needs to be re-addressed There's very little public policy discussion about this that puts the numbers up and says here are the options, what are we going to do?

HK: Transportation professionals are trained to look at the percentage of costs that are covered by user fees. If you look at transit through that lens, it looks like a loser. But what Americans increasingly want is the lifestyle that accompanies living in or near metropolitan areas. Even the people who want to live in small towns are living in small towns within striking distance of major metropolitan areas. That’s where the jobs are, plain and simple. Transit support is justified as it buys two things: an investment in our economy because urban centers are where the action is and an investment in quality of life. Intuitively most Americans understand that.

RK: There's actually a form of accounting that captures this; it’s very hard to do because there is a lack of high quality data. I've seen limited data on it in a whole study of worldwide transportation costs. If you compare Europe and the United States it finds that the government expenditure for transportation in Europe is significantly higher than that of the United States, at all government levels.

However, you have to consider that the fact that most transportation spending is not done by the government. Most transportation spending is by individuals and business. If you aggregate individual and business spending with government spending, the net result is the United States is spending a 50% or 70% larger share of its GDP on transportation. The main difference is car ownership.

In Europe, by virtue of the government having invested in all of these transit systems, individuals have made different choices. They're allocating much less of their personal budget to the ownership of cars because so many more of them can live the life they want to live without them. As a result, the net total cost to the GDP of the society is reduced.

RA: Is there a trend towards performance measure, or other metrics such as benefit-cost ratios, based allocation of funds – i.e., are prioritization programs similar to TIGER the way of the future?

RK: In the world of the federal TIGER program, which makes up a tiny portion of national transportation investment, there is definitely a trend and that’s because a group of people have been empowered to make smart investment decisions.

I personally believe that it’s a trend but I don't have confidence that it's a trend at the state and local level because of the provisions of MAP-21. There is an enormous trend of thinking about and talking about performance measurements. Is there a trend toward the actual use of performance measurement to change investment decisions and therefore change outcomes? I would say “no” or maybe “not yet”.

DG: I’d say not immediately. Currently, the thinking seems to be that performance measures will be used in a punitive way. When you start using them to incentivize then you’ll start getting closer to allocation based on performance.

I was at a conference earlier this week and the largest breakout group was on performance measures. The audience, which consisted of mostly state and DOT people, was trying to figure out what's coming to prevent a perceived disaster down the road when these performance measures are imposed upon them. I hope that doesn't happen but it could. Hopefully if people maintain that level of interest in these measures, then they’ll take them seriously.

In coming up with the measures there still hasn’t been any discussion about the end goal. What are we expecting in the end result?

RK: Right. If you establish performance metrics for safety, asset conditions, asset performance, and environment and you set targets that we could be proud of for each of those things, you will find that your ten- or 20-year spending plan to achieve each of those goals adds up to two or three times the amount of money you're probably likely to actually have over that period.

Setting a target on multiple axes for performance is fine. But what it creates is a Sophie's Choice situation where you have to choose which of the performance targets you’re going to fail to need? That's a more honest discussion than we have now; at the same time, we're not necessarily changing outcomes by setting performance currently.

HK: Performance management is going to happen in a lot more subtle and complicated ways than we might think. Starting with the basics, there are typically only three reasons to make an investment in a highway or a street: safety issues, structural issues – including drainage, pavement, bridges, etc., and service issues – including access, level of service, reliability, etc. Each of these three areas will represent very different challenges.

When it comes to structural issues we're getting better and better and we'll be converging on generally accepted measures because that is well within the purview of transportation agencies. And while specific goals and targets will vary, and will be debated, implicit will be a level of structural adequacy that will at least meet and hopefully exceed a minimum threshold.

For safety it becomes a little bit more difficult because root causes and responsibilities vary, but the end goal of minimizing fatalities and serious injuries is real and taken very seriously. We should, and do, strive toward zero deaths even as we recognize how elusive that goal may be. For the past several years AASHTO CEO’s have devoted half a day at their spring meeting to safety. Yet safety is clearly not the sole province of transportation officials and so we will see a variety of interests involved in debating and setting goals and making investment decisions to achieve specified target outcomes. On the other hand we have seen remarkable progress among transportation agencies, law enforcement, vehicle manufacturers, and safety-oriented organizations in converging on solutions. We have come a long way since the auto industry fought seat-belt requirements and transportation agencies resisted changing out end-treatments on crash barriers.

Of the three drivers of transportation investment – structural, safety, and service – I believe that the primary battleground rests with service issues. While we talked earlier about public transit and its impact on growth and travel I'm confident that 50 years from now the dominant mode of travel is still going to be some form of personal mobility. I just hope that it will not be fossil fuels providing the dominant energy source.

There's a culture built into Americans’ DNA about freedom of mobility. The Zipcar movement in urban settings is a wonderful example of that. We may not have to own a car but we want access to them when and where we need one.

The service performance goals and targets that may well dictate whether and how much to invest in transit or highways and what level of service to strive to achieve cannot be made solely by transportation officials. It is a societal issue that goes to the heart of what we said earlier to justify transit subsidies – our economic well being and the quality of our lives.

I’ve always believed that the consummate performance measure on the transportation service side is “opportunities per unit of time” and “per unit of cost.” When you think about what transportation does in its most basic terms. It boils down to opportunities for jobs, for education, for recreation, for receiving certain goods and services, in relation to the investment of time and cost required to provide those opportunities. But even if we can agree on appropriate measures, it is clear that our expectations of what constitutes an acceptable minimum threshold for service quality varies according to where you are, who you are, who is affected and in what way, and how much it will cost and who will have to pay what share. The advent of performance-based transportation planning may well improve our ability to analyze and communicate on these issues but I don’t think the decision-making will get much easier. And if we think that performance will displace politics we’d better think again.

So I would suggest that establishing performance goals that reflect structural issues as well as safety will continue to advance with much less difficulty than the performance goals that entail levels and quality of service.

SL: I have been thinking of the fact that the definition of the automobile highway mode is changing rather quickly. It is moving away from this vehicle/roadway system which we have built that has all of these negative consequences (congestion, pollution, visual clutter, noise, high fixed costs) to one where the technology is clean, smart, shared, connected, calmed, and safe. The ownership structures are very different. People are leasing and sharing. The range of services that are available for automobility are extremely different. This emerging technology may provide anywhere from 50 to 200% in increased capacity per channel without the negative environmental consequences. If you redefine the automobile roadway mode to align with where it's very clearly going, then the multi-modal transportation planning and policy environment becomes very different. The mix of positive and negative attributes of both auto transportation and transit are changing – and modal roles are blurring. What we currently call “transit” and what we currently call “automobility” are converging. As a result, the mode as an asset can be planned for very different from our legacy environment.

RA: Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its latest report card on the state of U.S. infrastructure. They gave U.S. infrastructure a “D+”. This is a marginal improvement over the “D” that was awarded in 2009’s report card. While we’re clearly not where we want to be, this signifies improvement over the last four years. Are we better off now than we were when we last spoke? If so, what have we done right? How can we get better?

DG: Yes, we are better off; the needle moved ever so slightly. The infrastructure category that moved the most was bridges. I suspect it to be the result of ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding, which allocated significant funding to bridges.

Some have argued that this is a benign improvement, as all of the ARRA funds were spent on small rural bridges that aren’t as important as large bridges in urban areas. I would challenge those critics to consider the importance of those small rural bridges to the communities they serve. They provide economic growth by getting people to and from work and businesses, in addition to providing access to schools and hospitals. To those people, small rural bridges are vastly important. The timeframes mandated by ARRA funding limited the ability of states to rebuild major bridge spans. As such, states were forced to target smaller bridges for improvements. The ARRA program is a great example of criteria driving the outcome. The obligation timeframes established with the program favored smaller projects that could be set up quickly and get underway; that’s what they got.

Getting back to the report card, in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, public infrastructure is one of his five basic principles that every level of government needs to invest in and provide. The report card indicates that we’re not accomplishing that basic principle. Moving from a D to D+ is not good enough; we're still not investing in all forms of public infrastructure. Consider water systems. They're treated like a public utility and paid for as such. We don't have any similar mechanisms for transportation.

Even though we improved slightly there is still ample room for improvement as there are several areas of significant concern – ports and waterways among them. We’ve still got a ways to go.

HK: By translating the state of our nation’s infrastructure into the simplest terms that every American can understand, ASCE is performing vital service. The attention that it deservedly attracts is wonderful.

Going back to our three reasons for making transportation investments, I think we've clearly improved with respect to structural issues, as Dave pointed out, and also with respect to safety issues. Long-term service is going to be the biggest ongoing debate.

SL: I’d like to discuss the public utility model and its applicability to transportation.

One of the more interesting phenomena currently occurring is the degree to which states are pushing to outsource more aspects of highway service, from project delivery, long term asset maintenance, systems management and operations – and everything in between. The closer the function is to performance and customer service – and the more dependent on technology – the more likely it is being outsourced. It means that perhaps our public agencies don't have the interest or capability to do it and rush to privatize – as exemplified by the trend to outsourcing

I think that this change is the tip of a profound iceberg. Currently we have a pyramid with a little bit of services on the top and a lot of preservation and construction and maintenance on the bottom. In this future model, we have to turn the pyramid over. If you're looking forward 50 years from now, things will be reversed. Customer services, operations and asset management will be at the top. Furthermore, the role of sectors is likely to change – in the great US tradition of private enterprise maybe we’ll be using a private vehicle mobility service provider whose services determine how you get your vehicle, where you operate, what system you use, how you’re getting to where you’re going, etc. This service provider may coexist with a public agency that still performs the basic public works function that DOTs are so good at. That type of future is moving to the front and center of transportation inexorably.

This appears to be moving us to a profound change in the future model of transpiration as a public utility – publically regulated and policy controlled – but with most services contracted out to a regional service provider. Service provision and finance will dominate these entities – rather than civil engineering.

HK: The private sector will increasingly play a role in managing and in providing an additional source of investment capital. But those investments have to have a reasonably assured return. That return is going to come from revenue streams that are going to have impact on voters. So I see the top of the pyramid still belonging to the public sector.

We have seen time and again that the public sector cannot and will not abdicate its role in transportation. The British rail privatization model, SR 91 in California, and the Dulles Airport to Leesberg Greenway all began as stellar examples of how the public sector role is disappearing and yet in every one of those cases the public sector stepped in to address issues of safety, cost, and financial viability. Yes, the private sector will play an expanded and vital role. No, it will not displace the ultimate accountability of public officials and agencies.

RK: The future that you put out is very imaginable but I can imagine a somewhat different future.

Consider this case: we had this funding method called the gas tax. Everyone drove a car, all cars used gasoline and the amount that people drove went up 2% per year forever, it was the perfect system. That system is currently falling apart and, once we're all driving electric zip cars everywhere that are self-guided by apps on the phone we have implanted in our head, the gas tax won’t work and therefore it will not be the answer. The answer may be that transportation will no longer be paid for by a specific tax going into a specific fund the way it has been done in most places in the past. Instead it will be paid for the way that the government pays for 95% of what the government does which is, you book tax, you collect it, and you spend it. That's a plausible outcome.

RA: We are having this discussion overlooking K Street (in Washington DC). If you had a crystal ball, in 50 years (i.e., in 2063), what will we see on K Street when we look out the window? Individual hover crafts? Driverless car share (similar to bike share programs)? Complete grid lock? Multi-layered roads for vehicular traffic? Pedestrian focused streetscape?

SL: I think it's very predictable. K Street is going to look like northwestern Europe's big city streets. It's going to be very organized and multi-modal. It's going to have bike and pedestrian prioritization and specific facilities with minimum conflicts. Car sharing and bike sharing stations will be along the street at the light rail stops. The street environments will be green and active with street life. Automobile use will be controlled in terms of speed and volume by a variety of known techniques. Parking pricing will be high and lots of routing information available.

DG: And that’s ok. Cars are getting smaller and the advent of connected vehicles and ultimately self driving vehicles will drastically increase the capacity of the roads we have.

RK: Yes, There are currently two revolutions: technological and cultural. The cultural revolution started a little sooner with people wanting nice a place to walk, stroll, have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They realized that the streets can be part of that as opposed to a dedicated transportation facility that you have to stay out of. It's happening more in urban areas, but even suburban areas are becoming walkable. The other revolution is this technology revolution of IT combined with electrification. The biggest change in transportation is going to be in the IT world.

It's going to be connected vehicles talking to each other in real time. It will revolutionize safety and mobility. From parking to car sharing to transit, it will make everything different.

All of that being said, I don’t think we should have too much confidence in our visions of the future because if there's one thing that has been the hallmark of the IT revolution that started with the Internet 15 or 20 years ago, it's that it evolves in directions that very few people see in advance. Those few people who do see it in advance are billionaires.

Those are the two revolutions that are going to change transportation. Whether it means we have more or less of any given thing that we have today I think is harder to know.

HK: We have to remember that left to their own free will,  Americans are very diverse and like very different things. So their K Street solutions will vary greatly from Washington, DC, to Wichita. While a growing number of Americans are relocating to the hearts of central cities, I don't think the suburbs or rural areas are going to die. I also don't think the desire to get in a vehicle and control that vehicle is going to change radically for much of the country. In terms of automated systems, there are huge technological and human factor and fleet management and liability issues to address.

I think we will initially see automated systems in managed environments. We’ll see them within port facilities or perhaps within airports and possibly in managed lanes restricted to vehicles that can pass a reliability screen.

We're going to see rapid growth of leased vehicles; not just long-term leases but short-term day-to-day leases as well. I don't think that's going eliminate the desire to own vehicles. The largest share of motor vehicles 50 years from now will still be privately owned, although it will be a lower percentage than today.

Change will occur, it will be palpable and it will be noticeable but the desire for diversity and some of the barriers to change that currently exist will still be out there. That means that while K Street may look somewhat different from today, the biggest difference will probably remain which town’s K Street you happen to be on. As long as people have that choice and are able to influence their own future, that's a good thing.


Image Header Source: Elvert Barnes (Creative Commons)