Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Maryland DOT Launches New Long-Range Plan (and it’s a good one!)

Maryland DOT has published the state’s new long-range transportation plan (2035 Maryland Transportation Plan: Moving Maryland Forward, available here) and it’s excellent! 
I won’t summarize the main points, which are pretty standard for an “enlightened” DOT (system preservation, more transit, performance management, etc.), but it’s worth mentioning a few standout items which haven’t made it to most state DOTs:
·      It’s only 53 pages!  Those of us who do these things for a living know how difficult it is to leave out all the details demanding to get into the book.
·      The plan recognizes the importance of the phenomenon of declining VMT, stating that the data suggests that “a return to strong annual VMT growth is unlikely and per capita VMT in Maryland is actually decreasing.”  This recognition is important, although the plan doesn’t attempt to draw conclusions about what this means for future policy and investment choices.  (See here for one approach.)
·      The plan also recognizes the technological revolution affecting transportation (electronic tolling, real-time travel data, online driver services, etc.) but again doesn’t pursue the implications as far as one might wish.
·      The plan notes that linking transportation infrastructure to economic development requires a more sophisticated knowledge of economic geography.  In Maryland, “forty-two percent of all…jobs are located in 23 employment centers, which occupy just over one percent of the State’s land area,” mostly in the Baltimore and DC metro areas.  Understanding what the economists call “agglomeration” of employment centers will be critical for transportation planners in the future.
·      A “region-based” planning framework is set out, working from the realization that understanding the needs and designing strategies for each of these regions – in a state with very diverse geography – is critical.  (The regions are Baltimore, Washington, Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland, and Western Maryland.)
·      The regional framework is complemented by an analysis of appropriate policies by “transportation place types”: urban centers, town and suburban centers, rural and agricultural areas, and natural areas.  This “transect” approach is hugely important for understanding and implementing context-sensitive approaches.  (My favorite transect approach is still the Smart Transportation Guidebook – link here – for which I have paternal affection.)
·      The plan also promises more work on linking transportation to the state’s land use plan, PlanMaryland: “As part of efforts to ensure consistency with the statewide sustainable growth plan (PlanMaryland) and with the State’s Economic Growth, Resource Protection and Planning Act, MDOT is working to develop enhanced modeling and decision-support tools to better inform project evaluation and selection in the context of both land use considerations, and statewide planning and policy initiatives.”  I’d love to see those tools when they’re done!
Could the plan be better?  Yes, I think so (nobody gets a 100 in this class).
First, as I suggested above, it recognizes but doesn’t pursue the implications of major social and technological changes we are facing.  I don’t believe any long-range plan is there yet, but they need to be engaging those questions.
Second, I thought the issue of climate change was given too low a profile.  It is there, but not as a marquee item.  In a state which, according to some models (here) may yield a good deal of its land area to the Atlantic Ocean by the end of the century, it’s time to begin preparing policy makers and the public for significant challenges.

Third, and more broadly, the plan doesn’t really envision what a 21st transportation system can be.  Building the Red Line and the Purple Line are important, but they don’t get us to what public transportation could be and may need to be in the future.  Improving the port may be justified for accommodating pressing freight needs, but manufacturing and distribution may be very different in the not too distant future.  Is Maryland ready for self-driving cars?  For non-fossil fuel transportation?  These issues – and more – aren’t being fully addressed anywhere, but they need to be.  Meanwhile, in the field of long-range transportation plans, Maryland has now put down what I think is probably the mark to beat.

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