Thursday, July 20, 2017

Climate Change Adds Urgency to Restoring Environmental Protection

A true statement, and also the name of a new report focusing on New Jersey.  The Fund for New Jersey is publishing a series of reports developed by expert groups and aimed at influencing policy debate in the 2017 election cycle for Governor and Legislature (New Jersey, like Virginia, is an odd-year state).  The series, called Crossroads New Jersey (website here), will cover seven topics: state fiscal policy, climate and environment, criminal justice, education, housing and land use, jobs and the economy, and transportation (full disclosure: I participated in the transportation group).
The climate change and environment report (full report here, two-page summary here) advocates a set of “common-sense policies” that will form the framework of “a sustained, well-coordinated effort to prevent climate change from being disastrous for New Jersey.”
Sadly, many of these recommendations would simply restore New Jersey to where it was a decade or so ago.  At that time, New Jersey had a vigorous statewide planning mechanism, aggressive climate change and energy programs, intensive regional planning in environmentally sensitive area (e.g., the Pinelands), and a state DOT in the forefront of linking transportation and land use planning.  These policies fit well with the state’s advantages for the 21st century: a location at the heart of the Northeast Mega-region, an affluent and educated population, enough population density to support transit and walkable communities, a robust (if aging) infrastructure, and a governmental system and political culture oriented toward finding and implementing solutions.  Alas, the past decade has seen considerable slippage in the state’s situation.  The Crossroads New Jersey project, however, looks squarely ahead, “to promote aspiration and action, not blame.”
Some of my favorite recommendations from the report:
·      Rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – Should be a no-brainer, but here we are.
·      Expand electric car infrastructure and accelerate expansion of fast charging stations – Despite noble efforts by the Transportation and Climate Initiative (cited in the recommendations) and others, state governments in the Northeast have a very mixed record of putting electric vehicle infrastructure in the ground.  New Jersey should be a leader here!
·      Develop a climate-change action plan to address the coastal threats from rising sea levels; the plan should include effective growth-management strategies, sustainable-development practices, and protective shoreline-management practices – Superstorm Sandy had a huge impact on New Jersey, but the state has not yet made the tough decisions that are needed to ensure a sustainable, resilient shoreline.
·      Update the State Development and Redevelopment Plan, Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, and Highlands Regional Master Plan to address the threats New Jersey faces – As I suggested earlier, the statutory and institutional infrastructure for comprehensive planning (including climate change, sustainable energy, and environmental protection) is in place, but it has been allowed to become – in the report’s word – moribund. 
Congrats to the Fund for New Jersey for taking on this challenge.  Let’s hope they are successful in informing the political debates.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for more reports!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

NASTO Notes, 2017

Regional transportation conferences often provide a good snapshot of what problems transportation officials are chewing on at the moment.  NASTO, my regional conference (Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials), annually gathers state DOT folks, together with consultants and hangers-on (like me) from DC to Maine, with an extension north of the border to Ontario and Quebec.
This year’s NASTO conference was all about coping with change, especially of the technological and economic variety. 
A few nuggets will provide the flavor of the presentations and conversations on technological change:
·      Autonomous vehicles are not science fiction.  They are already here and will be spreading rapidly.  Lot of discussion about how to make them safe and workable.
·      Look to Helsinki!  They are working out how to make public transportation and new point-to-point technologies work together in a seamless network.
·      Drones are also here and are being used daily by state DOTs for specialized tasks (e.g., inspecting high-mast light poles) where they are safer and more efficient than traditional methods.
On the economic/goods movement front, some key takeaways:
·      Home delivery is getting faster and faster, leading to construction of smaller, closer-in distribution centers.
·      As home grocery delivery services expand, the need for a resilient “cold supply chain” becomes more important.
·      Coal business is way down for railroads, who are looking for new business, including intermodal shipments.
·      Railroads are moving to a hub-and-spoke model to supplement the older long, through-train model.
·      State DOTs are beginning to look at the value of commodities shipped in a corridor, not just volume, in doing freight planning.
·      Marine highways (yeah!) are being seriously discussed again.
Two topics stood out to me by their relative absence, both in formal panels and private discussions: funding and climate change.
The need for greater (and more stable) funding is almost always a major theme at these events, although its prominence varies with the tax cycles and capital program needs of the state DOTs – and with the usually crazy federal reauthorization cycle.  This year, not much talk.  I expect more next year.
I was disappointed that climate change got virtually no attention, given the gravity of the issue.  When someone (me) asked the goods movement panel how they saw the freight sector responding to the need to decarbonize, the answers were….mixed.  Hopefully NASTO (and other regional and national organizations) will cycle this issue back to the top.

Congratulations to Leslie Richards and the PennDOT staff for hosting a productive and enjoyable conference!