Searching for the transportation vision thing

Andrew C. Lemer, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer
Transportation Research Board
Washington, D.C.
Member, APWA Transportation Committee

As springtime turns many people's thoughts to planting, cleaning the house, birds, bees, and perhaps baseball, Washington's transportation experts and policy wonks are consumed with what former President Bush dismissed as "the vision thing."

Rep. Peter DeFazio (Ore.), new chair of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, opened the subcommittee's first hearing of the 110th Congress by declaring, "Now that the Interstate System is largely complete, we need a new vision for what will be needed in the next 50 years to reduce congestion, increase mobility and support our nation's economy." The congressionally-chartered National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission (NSTPRC), created because "it is in the national interest to preserve and enhance the surface transportation system to meet the needs of the United States for the 21st century" and chaired by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, has been listening to testimony around the country from industry and trade groups similarly calling for "bold" and "compelling" new vision. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) organized a "Transportation Vision and Strategy Summit" in late May at a resort on Maryland's Eastern Shore; some 150 representatives of groups that build, operate, and use the nation's surface transportation system participated. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why now?
While Washington is certainly a place where plans are made on a grand scale—British author Charles Dickens, noting on a visit in 1842 that the capital had not quite lived up to expectations, called it "the City of Magnificent Intentions"—this swelling interest in transportation vision is remarkable. What's the cause?

From the insider's perspective, it's the perfect storm. First, the Interstate Highway System had its 50th birthday last summer and, as Rep. DeFazio noted, its construction is largely complete. Viewed as a single undertaking, the system is one of humanity's largest projects, and its development has shaped the nation's economy and our society. A lot of people whose businesses and careers have depended on it are wondering "What now?"

Second, the Interstates and many other highways built to feed and supplement the system are now showing their age. Like the baby boomers whose medical costs are beginning to swell, the nation is facing mounting costs for repair and reconstruction or the prospect of losing our investment legacy. At the same time, resources are getting tight. Relying on a punch line of "Read my lips: no new taxes," political leaders in most places have left gas taxes unchanged for more than a decade, while costs of materials and labor and time required to plan and complete projects have all increased dramatically. The squeeze has in turn undermined the willingness of states whose large populations and economies yield large gas-tax revenues to continue donating a share of that revenue to their cohorts whose needs exceed their ability to pay. On top of that, elected officials have been increasingly shameless, indulging their propensity to try to bring home the bacon by earmarking funds for locally popular projects.

Third, new technology, public concern about global climate change and other environmental problems, and political uncertainties with our energy supplies are raising the prospect that the ways we raise even limited revenues will have to change. Experts assure us that the gas tax will remain viable as a major source of funds for at least another decade, but we clearly will continue to increase fuel efficiency and switch to electricity, ethanol, or other energy sources that are not subject to today's fuel tax.

For at least these three reasons, transportation thought leaders are calling for new vision. A vision is needed to guide future management of our transportation system to assure its continued contribution to the nation's economy and quality of life. A vision is needed to provide a sense of common purpose among the diverse private and public institutions entrusted with the system's management. A vision is needed to excite public interest and garner the support that will encourage our political leadership to do the right thing.

To do all of that, the vision must be compelling. Half a century ago, President Eisenhower and his advisors used wartime experience to invoke the concept of fast, safe, and secure limited-access highways connecting the nation. Attendees at a recent gathering of leaders from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state departments of transportation (DOTs) called for the vision to have "man on the moon" stature, recalling how (as historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has represented it) President Kennedy sought to repair American self-confidence after the Bay of Pigs by proposing to send men to the moon and return them safely to Earth "before this decade is out."

What is the vision?
A brief magazine article is an unlikely place to expect to find a compelling vision for the nation's future transportation system, and the present author certainly does not purport to offer one. What may be done here is to suggest what some of the characteristics of the vision might be.

In contrast to the vision of the 1950s, for example, this time the vision must be multi-modal and inter-modal. We learned in the final years of the Interstate's development that highways in cities pose special challenges and that there are limits to growth of the system in metropolitan areas. Mass transportation for people and specialized—and probably dedicated—solutions for moving goods to, from, and within metropolitan areas are, with roads, essential elements of the future system. Facilitating the movement of people and goods from one transportation mode to another is a similarly essential element.

The vision will have to reflect the pattern of our demand for transport. Since the 1950s, the nation's population and business activities have continued to grow the most in urban areas. Using the Census Bureau's current definitions, more than 75 percent of the nation's people now reside in metropolitan areas. The number of people in the urban population has doubled since 1950. Rural population has risen only about 13 percent. As importantly, our pattern of demand today is much more global in scope than it was when the Interstates were proposed, and that demand is concentrated at ports of entry located predominantly in urban areas. More than ever, the nation's transportation problems are metropolitan problems, but the vision must encompass our rural areas as well: they are the critical links unifying our national system. In any case, the vision, like former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill used to say of politics, will be local.

Considering the global pattern of demand, the vision will have to give particular attention to movement of freight. The transportation system has become more than simply the way to move goods between centers of production and markets, but rather an integral part of the production process. Companies seeking cost savings by adopting lean production processes have eliminated warehouses in favor of trucks and cargo containers to store smaller inventories. Manufacturers seeking to take advantage of skill and lower cost labor have distributed their production lines around the world, moving progressively finished products from place to place.

The transportation vision will have to encompass more than transportation. Improved safety, security, energy independence, and environmental sustainability are high on the list of societal goals that we expect transportation to help us achieve. Regardless of whether we believe that transportation is a cause of climate change, how we manage our transportation system will have to be a part of our response to the change.

To be compelling, the vision will have to be suited to the roles of governments at federal, state, and local levels, and to private-sector institutions that will work in partnership with these governments. The vision will also have to appeal to the general population who vote, pay taxes, and make choices about when and how they will use the future transportation system. For a nation that expects messages to be delivered in sound bites and elevator pitches, the vision will have to be clear and simple.

If it quacks like a duck...
It's a tall order. Unless some charismatic leader emerges to rally us, our transportation vision will have to emerge from a messy process of debate and consensus building. Getting to the vision will in that sense be like producing laws, which 19th-century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck famously compared to the production of sausages: "It is better not to see them being made."

Congress passed the current federal transportation legislation—the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), providing about $286 billion in spending for highways, transit, and safety for fiscal years 2004 through 2009—at the end of the summer of 2006, more than two years late. One result of legislative tardiness is that the people who are engaged in such things are already gearing up for the next reauthorization debates, and that is putting pressure on the quest for new vision.

It is critical then that we get on with the task. APWA and its more than 28,500 members must work with federal officials, DOTs, MPOs, local government organizations and private-sector groups to assure that our concerns and aspirations are part of the mix as the vision is shaped, that the sausage is to our taste.

In March, for example, APWA President Bill Verkest testified on behalf of APWA at one of the NSTPRC field hearings, highlighting particularly the needs of localities struggling to improve deteriorating and congested streets, and to make those streets safer for all users, motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. He discussed the increasingly important role local government plays in financing the costs of roadway improvements as well as making the improvements. We must continue such discussion at the level of our localities and facilitate the flow of ideas back to the national level.

The Good Book says, "Where there is no vision...the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18 in the King James Version.) It may be an exaggeration to suggest that developing a transportation vision for the coming decades is a matter of life, death, and salvation, but it is without doubt important to our future, and there is a real risk in not making the effort.

A crucial question is how we will know when the transportation equivalent of putting a person on the moon is presented to us. The most likely answer is that we simply will recognize it because it will be clear and compelling. If it waddles and quacks...

Or perhaps purring is closer to the point. In Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat:

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where—" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"—so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

While some may argue that after fifty years we are not exactly where we thought we would be, the transportation vision that has brought us here was remarkably clear and durable. I, at least, would prefer that the journey forward is not a random walk, and want to help set the direction.

Andrew C. Lemer, Ph.D., is a member of APWA's Transportation Committee. The statements and views presented here are his alone and do not reflect official positions of APWA or the Transportation Committee. Dr. Lemer can be reached at (202) 334-3972 or alemer@nas.edu.