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!

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