Thursday, June 12, 2014
NASTO Notes 2014
Every year representatives of the state DOTs of the Northeast states (and assorted interested folks like me) gather to hear panels, exchange information, and socialize. This is the annual meeting of NASTO (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials), one of four regional groups in the US. It’s not only a great place to exchange news and views but a great place to get a sense of what’s happening in state transportation circles. This year’s conference was held in beautiful Portsmouth, NH and hosted by New Hampshire DOT (great job NHDOT folks!).
Climate Change – This topic may not be taken seriously in some places, but it is a huge concern among Northeast DOTs. A session on Climate Change Resilience and Sustainability, chaired by Sue Minter of Vermont (where Irene made believers of just about everybody) demonstrated some big advances. Kate Zyla of Georgetown Climate Center gave an update on the work of the Transportation and Climate Initiative (website here). If you’re not familiar with TCI, it’s a remarkable collaborative effort of the transportation, energy, and environment agencies of the 11 Northeast states and DC. (I am not impartial, having a bit of a paternal interest, as I helped facilitate getting the group started a couple of years ago.) Another remarkable collaborative effort is being undertaken by 50 climate scientists and transportation engineers in the northeast. Jennifer Jacobs of the University of New Hampshire gave a briefing on the Infrastructure and Climate Network (ICNet, website here) which is sponsoring workshops, webinars, and pilot projects that connect high-level scientific findings on climate change and extreme weather events with practical engineering design guidelines. Niek Veraart of the Louis Berger Group showcased some innovative new projects for sustainability in Hoboken, NJ, and Staten Island and Long Island. The concern for resiliency in these places, of course, was prompted by the flooding caused by Sandy. Mike Meyer of Parsons Brinckerhoff gave an update on the new National Climate Assessment and some other new reports that continue to expand our knowledge of the science and the range of possible responses. At a more practical level, a panel on Storm Coordination demonstrated how seriously the operations and maintenance folks are preparing for future extreme weather events. A much talked about touchstone for all these discussions was the recent New York Times story reporting on how the Northeast states have managed to reduce emissions and increase economic growth at the same time (here).
Northeast Corridor – Another topic of special interest to the region is the future of the Northeast Corridor rail spine. Chronically underfunded, stuck in an organizational nightmare, despised by a majority in the House of Representatives – and yet perhaps the biggest key to transportation and economic development in the Northeast. Mitch Warren, of the Northeast Corridor Commission, set up by Congress to make recommendations for the future, gave an update. Brett Taylor, of Delaware, gave the perspective of states on the corridor, who continue to invest heavily in improvements from their own resources. Outlook? A final report is due this year. We’ll see what happens. Rich Davey of Massachusetts gave a peek at one key opportunity. MassDOT hopes to significantly expand South Station in Boston, with new tracks, more platforms, and significant joint development opportunities. And Rich says these improvements will speed up service from Back Bay to South Station, the slowest mile on the whole Corridor.
Freight – There was a good panel on freight, but I’ll just mention two key takeaways from the presentation by Louis Renjel of CSX. First, coal traffic is way down (confirming what looks to be a permanent decline), but the railroad has been able to compensate by increasing intermodal traffic. Second, CSX is changing its network from a corridor model to a hub-and-spoke model, borrowed from UPS and FedEx. Both trends are important – and encouraging – for transportation and land use planners.
Funding – Surprisingly, there was little talk of funding problems at this conference. Why? I think partially because almost half of the states in the region have gotten funding packages through their legislatures in the past couple of years. More to do, but still a pretty good track record – and at a time when pundits in Washington say nobody will support gas tax increases! Speaking of Washington, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen gave a synopsis of the situation in Congress. She attempted to put a positive spin on the chances for MAP-21 extension, but without any real evidence to give much hope (and this was a day before Eric Cantor went down, which I think makes our chances even worse). Two Shaheen statements to comment on: “Failure is not an option.” Agree completely! “We need to be creative.” Half agree. Yes, we need to be creative to design and build a 21st century transportation system and an appropriate long-term funding system. No, we don’t need to be creative to solve the immediate (say, 5-year) funding problem. We just need the votes to raise the bloody gas tax!
Performance management – The DOTs of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire explained in some detail their work in developing robust performance management systems in their agencies, including much work in agreeing on common performance measures. The content is too complicated to get into here, but a very important takeaway is the conclusion all three states have come to that good performance management increases confidence in their legislatures and their publics and leads to more investment!
Memorial Bridge – This new lift bridge, connecting New Hampshire and Maine, is the pride and joy of New Hampshire DOT, the lead agency, and they took every opportunity to show off the impressive and innovative engineering achievements in designing and building it. We can build great things in this country!
Congrats to New Hampshire DOT for a great conference!