Big Investments, Ideas Fueling Transportation’s Future

Thomas Mullen
February 17, 2017

If historians ever go searching for a start date of the modern era of transportation innovation, they might very well look at November 8, 2016.

On that day, millions of Americans — divided as never before by issues of politics and party — agreed almost uniformly on one thing: the need to prioritize our nation’s transportation systems as the backbone of our future economic growth. Voters in 26 states approved transportation spending measures that will invest an eye-popping $200 billion over the next generation in upgrading, replacing, and reinventing the ways Americans get around — from subways to highways to bicycles and beyond.

But even those statistics don’t capture the entirety of the unfolding transportation transformation. The prospect of an unprecedented federal effort to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure coupled with a myriad of technological advances — from the driverless car to high-speed rail — could indeed be propelling us into a transportation revolution that ranks among mankind’s greatest achievements in mobility, out-smarting and out-achieving even the railroads of the 1800s and the Interstate system of the mid-1900s.

But with big ideas come big responsibilities — to ensure taxpayers’ financial commitments are rewarded with long-lasting systems that take into account efficiency, future innovation and the environment.

Transportation: The Real November Winner

The November elections were nothing short of a smashing success for transportation-related measures and a truly historic day for infrastructure support. In Santa Cruz County. Calif., for example, more than 67 percent of November voters approved a half-cent local sales tax for county-wide transportation improvement. This compares to just 42 percent who voted for a similar measure in 2004. Even more impressively, more than a third of these measures passed in California, which requires a two-thirds “supermajority” for approval of any local tax to support a specific purpose like transportation. And these were far from patch jobs. Indeed, many of the successful measures are generational in nature and destined to change the face of our country’s transportation landscape for decades to come and in ways we’ve only begun to imagine.Nearly 70 percent of voters in Los Angeles County said “yes” to two half-cent sales tax increases that are expected to raise $120 billion over the next 40 years in support of a long-range transportation plan that will dramatically transform the region — from a long-awaited rail line to LAX, to a subway under notoriously traffic-choked Sepulveda Pass.Seattle-area voters approved Proposition 1, a $54 billion plan to finance light-rail lines, commuter train and buses over the next 25 years.In San Francisco, voters approved two large transportation measures: a $3.5 billion bond over 30 years to fund a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) renewal plan and $6.3 billion for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.The Atlanta area saw three separate sales tax increases get approved for transportation measures, including a $2.5 billion plan to improve the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system over the next 40 years.

Infrastructure a National Conversation

The need for a comprehensive infrastructure package has been one of the rare points of agreement between Democrats and President Trump — even if they have very different ideas of how that might happen. Senate Democrats are currently pushing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would require dedicated, deficit-boosting federal dollars, figuring the infrastructure projects can make up the difference in the long run via user fees and resulting economic growth. Meanwhile, Trump favors relying on locally funded private-public partnerships that use tax credits and other incentives to pay for any infrastructure fixes. But even if these and other political differences end up stalling a federal infrastructure package, the issue of repairing our nation’s roads, bridges and airports has reached a lofty stage indeed — and that’s not a bad thing. After all, federal attempts to fix America’s transportation backbone too often come via patch-work legislation targeting separate, disconnected projects with little overarching strategy. But infrastructure earning a spot in the national agenda means there’s a real chance its deficiencies will be addressed one day with a considered and comprehensive federal plan that will provide a welcome backdrop to the many successful transportation efforts currently under way at the local level.

New Technology

As thrilling as it is to see such overwhelming support for traditional transportation projects, there are several game-changing technologies on the horizon that could have an even more fundamental impact on the multi-modal transportation picture. Take driverless cars, for example. At first glance, one might think that eliminating a human driver wouldn’t make much of a difference in the transportation equation. After all, you know all the shortcuts to your office. How much time is a bot really going to save you? But when you consider that autonomous vehicles will operate less as individual entities and more as instruments in an inter-connected fleet of vehicles, the impact is stark indeed. Basically, it’s the difference between getting on the internet through a start-and-stop dial-up connection — or via the modern, always-flowing efficiency of a wireless network. Decisions regarding traffic light phases or specialty lane designations will no longer be based on static statistics culled during a one-time study, but on real-time information provided by the fleet itself. Fleet managers — not wanting their vehicles to be stuck in traffic — will be able to minimize trips that take place in heavy congestion, thus reducing that very congestion. Of course, driverless cars are just the beginning. Planners and communities alike also need to consider a day when high-speed rail is a legitimate part of the transportation picture. And what about Hyperloop technology? Sure, the idea of shooting a pod of people in a vacuum tube at faster-than-airline speeds may be purely experimental now. But so were countless other transportation innovations at their inception — until they actually happened, and completely transformed how humans move. For those on the forefront of building the next generation of our country’s transportation system, the need for maximizing efficiencies while mitigating environmental and cost impacts has never been more pronounced — and will require new ways of working that mirror the efficiencies of the innovations taking place on our nation’s highways.

Big Ideas Bring Big Responsibilities

Creating a next-generation transportation system that incorporates multiple levels of efficiency and coordination shouldn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. For those laying out the future of transportation, public engagement will be more critical than ever, offering planners not just counterpoints and critiques, but the kind of outside, forward-looking solutions that are key to actual innovation. To best accomplish this, today’s agencies, planners and builders will need to embrace the most modern tools and methods available — from forging private-public partnerships with corporate interests to finding new ways to generate real interaction and ideas with their constituents. For the leaders of this transportation revolution, merely holding a public comment period to abide by the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or an environmental impact statement isn’t enough. True innovation requires distilling as many ideas in as efficient a manner as possible, then properly analyzing them to forge the best path forward. Public engagement software is an important part of this process, allowing members of the public to submit e-comments related to a project, and giving the project team powerful tools to manage, understand and respond to them. But it’s just part of a bigger puzzle that involves new levels of transparency and new ways of listening, thinking and working. After all, the transportation plans approved by voters in November are more than fixes. Combined with a federal strategy and the technological breakthroughs we see unfolding by the day, they’re a roadmap for a transportation future that affects us all. Whether you’re a citizen or a project manager, we can all build this transportation revolution together.

It’s an exciting time indeed.