Saturday, February 14, 2015

USDOT’s remarkable new “blue paper”

USDOT has issued a remarkable new report – “Beyond Traffic: 2045” (here) – that sketches out the current downward trajectory of our transportation system (“Drifting toward gridlock”) and possible alternatives (“A better path”).  Those looking for a long-range plan, or even a vision, won’t find it here.  The authors assert that it is not a blueprint but is intended to “open a national dialogue.”  (Hence, “blue paper.”)  Nevertheless, the report is crisp, clear, and even relatively courageous in describing our system’s deteriorated state, our failure to resource it and manage it properly, and the striking challenges and opportunities in front of us.  Unfortunately, the prospects for a robust national dialogue at this point in time are poor.  I wish we had seen this paper six years ago!  What a difference it might have made!
Five points about “Beyond Traffic: 2045” that I really like (followed by five I don’t):
1.     The paper suggests that we need to do more than just fix up our legacy system: we need to “launch a comeback” and strive to be a world leader in improved mobility and new technology.  This is consistent with my argument that we need to begin to envision and design a real 21st transportation system. 
2.     There is a robust discussion and commitment to addressing climate change – both mitigation and adaptation.  The paper catalogs all the major consequences of climate change, from pavement failures to airports under water, and reviews all the policy options available.  The clear policy direction: “To be responsible stewards of our transportation system, we must work to reduce its impact on the environment; to keep America moving, we must adapt to the anticipated effects of climate change.”
3.     There is a recognition of the social and economic impacts of the system in an age of growing income inequality.  The paper points out the high cost of transportation to the working class (a term you don’t usually hear in transportation reports), echoing the work done by Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology for years.
4.     The paper recognizes that travel patterns really have changed – that for a variety of social and economic reasons, per capita VMT really has flattened.  This is a message that some folks still haven’t gotten.
5.     There is a lot of discussion and attention paid to rapidly developing technology, from connected vehicles to 3D printing to the role of smartphones.  Interestingly, this topic seems to have gotten most of what little press attention the report has attracted.  No one knows the answers to what new technology may bring, but it is encouraging that USDOT recognizes it as a topline issue.
And, yes, a few things I don’t like so much:
1.     The analysis of the future of goods movement issues needs more work.  There is an assumption that international trade (meaning mostly imports) will continue to grow at the same rate and that it is “essential” that we modernize our ports.  I, for one, have never quite understood why public funds should be used to subsidize the import sector, what I call the “Shenzhen to Walmart supply chain.”  There is a good discussion of “first mile and last mile” issues, the problems of urban delivery, and the possibilities of freight villages, but these could be pushed to the next step, to promote electrified delivery systems and growing freight villages into what I call “green junctions.”  I also missed seeing anything about Marine Highways, which have great potential and which are held back largely by legislative and political decisions made a hundred years ago.
2.     I also find the discussion of transit a bit lacking.  Sure there is a discussion of the importance of transit and how there is a “resurgence” in that sector and the difficulties of expanding and maintaining systems.  But there is no suggestion that major metropolitan areas will need much more robust and expansive transit systems to be successful in meeting the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. 
3.     The report notes that sprawl creates problems – but seems to accept it as a force of nature.  I understand that any discussion at all of land use issues overstimulates the brains of rightwing politicians and talk show hosts, but it is nonetheless a fundamental issue.  More suburban freeways are not going to solve the congestion problem, and they’re going to make a lot of things worse.  Somehow, national policy needs to promote integrated land use and transportation planning, possibly along the lines of the “blueprint planning” pioneered in California, or we will be subsidizing growth patterns that will be less and less sustainable in the future.
4.     The bike/ped sections seem a bit perfunctory.  If we are facing decades of extreme weather events, serious policy choices on climate change issues, and new employment and settlement patterns, we need to do some serious “micro” planning to complement regional planning.  Relatively self-sustaining towns and neighborhoods need both better accessibility and human-powered mobility options.  This would have been a good opportunity to launch that discussion.
5.     The administration seems largely to have thrown in its hand on national high-speed rail.  The narrative on that topic doesn’t offer much except a rather wistful hope that Class I freight railroads can be encouraged to be more cooperative with passenger rail.  I’m afraid that this issue may have to cycle around again before it can become an issue outside the Northeast Corridor and maybe California.
Now of course the point of this whole exercise is to rejuvenate the transportation program – and that means finding a way to get a big tax increase done in a largely hostile environment.  The paper contains sections devoted to “aligning decisions and dollars” and lets the reader know that maintaining the status quo in terms of dollars or system condition, let alone major improvements, will require significant new revenue.  However, unlike the national policy and finance commission reports, this document doesn’t hang its hat on a “needs” number, let alone a cents-per-gallon number.  And I suppose that’s OK in a “discussion” document.  Those of us that have written these documents know that the revenue/tax issues are always the trickiest to handle and that any headline tax numbers pretty much kill any interest in any of the policy questions bruited for debate.  The financial discussion at least mutes the siren song of public-private partnerships, which the administration has sometimes suggested can substitute for real revenue.  I hope a real financing discussion may happen soon!
Will this Congress authorize a multi-year transportation program with significant new revenue and a commitment to national greatness in this sector?  I suppose it’s possible, although difficult to envision.

At any rate, congrats to USDOT for giving us a gutsy, substantive, long-overdue document that should – in an ideal world – get some real debates going.  Let’s hope it does.

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