Choose Your Own Transportation Future: Thoughts on USDOT’s Beyond Traffic

Policy Analyst

In recent years the American public has been inundated with crumbling infrastructure headlines and predictions that congestion across transportation modes will increase so that it will be like Thanksgiving weekend everywhere, all the time. And to some extent, this is true. Many of our key infrastructure assets are in disrepair and our largest metropolitan regions struggle with significant congestion in the air and on the ground as the U.S. population continues to grow. This story typically ends with a call to increase investment levels for transportation.

After the President’s FY2016 budget was released on February 2, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) released Beyond Traffic: U.S. DOT’s 30 Year Framework for the Future. While the budget was a proposal to increase federal funding for transportation investment across the modes, the 30-year framework aimed to paint a picture of where the state of U.S. transportation is, and where it could go in the long run. It was not meant to be prescriptive, but to provide policy makers with the information needed to make better decisions about how to reshape and rethink our current policies.

An initial skim of the 316-page document may lead a reader to assume that the document falls into the category of simply repeating the overused trope of “crumbling infrastructure.” But a closer examination reveals that this document is more innovative than that. It systematically explores the current state of how people and things move, the changing landscape of technology in transportation, the challenges associated with a changing climate and the need for resiliency, and the politics and funding decisions that drive all of these aspects.

The crux of USDOT’s message is that we have the ability to choose our transportation future. Beyond Traffic illustrates the 2045 “baseline”, or what the U.S. might look like assuming that we continue down the current path. In many ways, it looks a lot like 2015. There is Congressional gridlock and we continue to infuse the Highway Trust Fund with general revenues every few months. Transportation projects are delayed, sometimes indefinitely (which is a symptom of short-term funding infusions that are already plaguing the United States). Further, the transportation work force lacks expertise because the industry’s challenges have made it an increasingly unpopular career choice. Even current projects, such as the Federal Aviation Administration’s modernization of the air traffic system, continue to lag.

Naturally, the “baseline” in transportation does not paint a pretty picture 30 years down the road (nor is the baseline budget that the Congressional Budget Office recently released very promising for transportation), but USDOT concludes Beyond Traffic with the message that there is a choice. And importantly, the authors lay down an array of choices. In terms of surface transportation funding, USDOT suggests a number of options that in some respects mirror the suggestions Eno made in The Life and the Death of the Highway Trust Fund, including mentioning the possibility of paying for transportation through income taxes or reducing spending to be inline with revenues.

Additionally, USDOT highlights the need to prioritize investments to encourage positive performance. This is a sentiment that was echoed by Secretary Foxx on a recent National Public Radio interview in which he mentioned that not only does the United States need to increase revenue streams for surface transportation, but we also need to spend our money more effectively. From a national perspective, spending money more effectively and providing funding consistency is more important than simply throwing more money at the problem. This is something that Eno has often recommended in reports, including our recent publication on the use of life cycle cost analysis.

Beyond Traffic also mentions the possibility that the, “management of transportation systems and facilities, such as the air traffic control system or public toll roads, could be privatized or restructured to operate more like a business.” This is a bold statement and deserves consideration as we try to effectively prioritize investments and make better decisions. The concept of corporatizing air traffic control is one that that Eno’s NextGen Working Group is exploring, in an effort to determine what governance structure will best help modernize our aviation system. The U.S. also lags behind many of its international peers in engaging the private sector in public-private partnerships (P3s). P3s not only have the ability to bring in cost savings, but importantly they provide the opportunity to introduce innovative thinking for design, operations, and finance. It is encouraging to see USDOT recognizing the benefits of these approaches.

Transportation policy think tanks, trade associations, innovators, and transportation operators spend copious amounts of time thinking about these issues. At Eno, we are trying to help make transportation in the United States better by recommending policy improvements that encourage better investment and spending decisions. Technology companies are trying to figure out how to more efficiently get people or things from point A to point B, and transportation operators are doing the same. But none of these efforts will be successful in a modal silo, or within state boundaries. To compete in the global economy, we are going to have to work together to create a comprehensive transportation policy.

This year Congress must address the issue of the Highway Trust Fund, which will need to be reauthorized in May and, without intervention, will experience funding shortfalls on a day-to-day basis by early September. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration will be up for reauthorization the same month. As was underscored in Beyond Traffic, Congress has the choice to maintain the status quo of short-term patches, or to take a different approach by identifying the transportation future that is best for the United States, and creating intentional policies to reach those goals.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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