Friday, July 12, 2019

NASTO Notes 2019

So NASTO 2019 finally saw a re-emergence of some attention to Climate Change issues (NASTO is the Northeastern Association of State Transportation Officials, which recently held its annual conference in Wilmington, DE). 
I was happy to see that Resilience was back on the agenda.  As usual with transportation people, there was little discussion of “Climate Change.”  The focus was on Extreme Weather Events and how to respond to them.  The overall takeaway is that Resilience is being mainstreamed in state DOTs, at least in the Northeast.  Elements of the developing approach to Resilience include input from academic research, long-range planning, development of greener approaches to hardening of infrastructure, and detailed planning for disaster response.  In the works – and coming out shortly – is a “CEO Primer” on Resilience issues for state DOT secretaries and commissioners (information here). 
It was also encouraging to see a session on electrification of the transportation sector, which I consider an urgent priority.  The two technologies discussed were electric buses and hydrogen fuel cells (for a variety of uses). 
Electric buses, I’m pleased to say, are making rapid market penetration throughout the country.  The technology is rapidly advancing and the business plan of the leading manufacturer, Proterra, appears solid.  They argue that electric buses are now cheaper than diesel vehicles over their lifetime, as the long-term savings in maintenance costs (electric buses are very low-maintenance) overcomes the initial higher cost to purchase.  Interestingly, Proterra has no plan for developing in-service charging, reasoning that current batteries will last through a day of typical revenue service – and these batteries are getting better at a rapid rate.
I don’t know much about hydrogen fuel cells, which certainly have many benefits but also have the drawback of requiring considerable new infrastructure.  California is rapidly scaling up so that light-duty HFC vehicles, now for sale, can have relatively easy access to hydrogen fueling stations.  HFC technology is also very promising for trucks and trains (see my blog posting here).
Unfortunately, counterbalancing these minimal, though promising, discussions on Climate Change issues was a Maryland DOT presentation touting their massive Interstate highway widening plan.  They intend to use a public/private partnership arrangement to raise $11 Billion for a major widening of the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the I-270 radial freeway in Montgomery and Frederick counties.  In my view, a widening program on this scale represents a huge setback on multiple levels to efforts to combat Climate Change (full disclosure: I have provided information in support of this view to my client, the Maryland Climate Coalition, who are fighting the MDOT plan).  Sadly, the same DOT that is advancing this oversized widening program has also stopped the Baltimore Red Line transit project, which should have been – and can still be – an enormous step forward in promoting urban redevelopment, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and multimodal mobility.
I should say a word about our host city – Wilmington – and the Riverfront Redevelopment area where we met.  The Wilmington Riverfront is a real urban redevelopment success story, transforming a derelict industrial wasteland into a vibrant mixed-use community over a 25-year period.  This success was powered by the usual forces: strong political leadership, major public investment, powerful private sector actors willing to support it, and many entrepreneurs willing to take a risk.  The process wasn’t always easy (see the video on the Redevelopment website here) but has paid off in a big way.  The Riverfront is such a success story that the former director of the Redevelopment agency – Michael Purzyki – was elected mayor!
Congrats to Delaware DOT for hosting a great conference!