Guest Op-Ed: Automated Vehicles and Minding the Looming Infrastructure Funding Gap

Needless to say, the Department of Transportation, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has had a busy few months with the release of the highly anticipated Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (Policy) and Cybersecurity Best Practices for Modern Vehicles. With the release of the Policy and ongoing 60-day comment period, DOT has moved the regulatory gears from “neutral” to “drive” for automated vehicles (AVs).

For those excited about the life changing benefits AVs offer, the issuance of the first iteration of the Policy is a welcome step towards developing a regulatory framework for AVs. However, even with a seamless regulatory structure, the success of this transformative technology will depend upon integrating the right infrastructure into our roads which, whether we want to acknowledge or not, will require money. This burden cannot and should not be placed on the backs of local governments alone.

For example, in the “Model State Policy” section of the Policy, it is anticipated that AVs will require standardized signage, pavement markings and potentially traffic signals and lights. Additionally, it has been documented that AVs are not well suited for encounters with potholes or “shoddy infrastructure.”

Now is the ideal time to begin discussing how to pay for AV infrastructure needs. History has shown that funding for our nation’s transportation infrastructure crosses political borders. In fact, support for infrastructure spending is one of the only issues Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump agreed upon. But, reaching a bipartisan consensus in Congress does take time.

The passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) at the end of last year was a welcome development in a partisan Congress. However, the nation still does not have a long-term solution to funding the Highway Trust Fund. In order to ensure the safe operation of AVs and realize the full benefits of this technology – safety, enhanced personal mobility across all demographics, efficient spending on transportation projects – a band-aid approach to paying for the needed infrastructure is not a wise path forward.

The Policy encourages information sharing between manufacturers developing this transformative technology. Similarly, diverse sectors, including federal decision-makers, local governments, states, and manufacturers should be brought together to develop a balanced funding strategy to pay for AV infrastructure needs. Taking a realistic view of Congress and its current attitude toward new funding, counting on federal funding alone is likely not a prudent long-term approach.

For now and into the future, all potential funding options need to be kept on the table and not preempted as part of any future federal actions. Examples of viable funding options for consideration are the following:

Federal Grants and Financing: The recent Smart City Challenge sponsored by DOT was an innovative grant program that should assist in identifying the infrastructure needed to support a smart transportation city. DOT has followed up the Smart City Challenge with the award of nearly $65 million in Advanced Technology Transportation grants. Identifying the infrastructure needed to support the safe operation of AVs is one step, but the second and more difficult task is developing a solution to pay for the needed infrastructure.

Consequently, federal resources should also be dedicated to developing programs to support the financing for the installation and maintenance of the necessary infrastructure, whether that is through traditional federal matching grants or the ongoing movement to low-interest loan programs such as the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program.

User/Miles Traveled Fees: Earlier this year, Tennessee passed a law (SB 1561) not only defining an “autonomous system,” but also establishing a use tax for autonomous vehicles operating on state highways. It is noteworthy that sixty percent of the tax revenues go to the state’s highway trust fund, twenty percent to counties, and ten percent to cities. By proposing an alternative funding approach, Tennessee recognizes that sole reliance on the politically charged federal gas tax is likely not the best long-term funding approach for the well-maintained roads that AVs appear to require. Such an approach is also in tune with the vehicle-miles-traveled pilot programs encouraged through the FAST Act.

Franchise Agreements: Franchise models are already an important tool for jurisdictions seeking to build out their telecommunications networks and increase local wireless and broadband access. Here, a similar approach can be considered for the build-out and maintenance of roads for the operation of AVs. In exchange for the right to operate a fleet of AVs, a provider could be required to build and maintain a dedicated lane or lanes for the safe operation of AVs, or have the right to use an existing managed lane.

Public-Private-Partnerships: With the popularity of ridesharing networks, more and more “first and last mile” projects are hitting the streets. When public-private-partnerships are negotiated in a balanced manner, they can be an effective tool for local governments to help offset transportation costs and better evaluate transportation needs. Also, such innovative ridesharing partnerships may be the solution to a reducing appetite for billion dollar transit projects, especially if voters stop supporting ballot measures needed for local matches.

While the regulatory path for AVs has started to take shape, it is going to take a collaborative and creative effort between the federal government, states, and industry to address the infrastructure funding gap looming on the horizon. This difficult conversation should not be put off any longer if we want to ensure the transformative benefits of AVs are fully realized.

What better way to start the recovery from a divisive election season than to unite around an inspiring technology, to ensure it is rolled out safely and effectively, to help improve the well-being of citizens, and enter the next generation of transportation with an emphasis on multi-passenger, electric, driverless vehicles operated through a ride sharing network.

Gregory Rodriguez is of counsel in Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Municipal Law practice group.  Working out of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, Greg’s practice includes providing information, strategic guidance and legal assistance on the regulation and implementation of smart transportation technologies into the transportation network of local governments, including autonomous vehicles. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.



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