Transportation Policy Academy 2013 – DC – Part 7: Panel Discussion with Emil Frankel, Sarah Kline & Paul Feenstra

Day two of the CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Washington, DC included a transportation policy roundtable featuring a variety of transportation stakeholders and experts. The final panel of the morning featured: Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, former U.S. Department of Transportation official during the Bush Administration and veteran of previous CSG Transportation Policy Academies; Sarah Kline, Research Director for the DC-based advocacy coalition Transportation for America, former Senate staffer and D.C.-area transit official; and Paul Feenstra, Senior Vice President for Government and External Affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America). They discussed the prospects for MAP-21 reauthorization, how local communities are energized to invest in transportation options, how technology solutions can help communities get the most out of existing infrastructure, the shortcomings of transportation project planning processes and how MAP-21’s focus on performance measurement may help improve them.

Frankel laid out a pessimistic outlook regarding MAP-21 reauthorization.

“(President Obama) has talked about transportation infrastructure more consistently, persistently than any President since Dwight Eisenhower,” he told legislators attending the policy academy. “(It’s) really quite extraordinary. But he doesn’t seem to be much of a believer in using user-based funding to support the program. This Democratic President seems to be as strongly opposed to the gas tax increase and other user-based funding mechanisms as his predecessor, my boss, President Bush. And clearly Congress has no taste to take on an increase in the gas tax or even to talk about a substitute.”

“We will have transferred by the end of MAP-21 at least $55 or $56 billion of general funds—that is borrowed (money) to sustain the Highway Trust Fund just so it can meet current program levels. That doesn’t seem to me to be very good fiscal policy. … There were two and a half years of extensions of SAFETEA-LU. I suspect at the end of MAP-21 we’re going to see another 20 extensions for another two or three years, then another short-term bill all during that time transferring money from the General Fund a little here, a little there … and it is totally unsustainable.”

Sarah Kline of Transportation for America agreed that if history is any guide, more short-term extensions and General Fund transfers are on the way, which could be bad news for state governments.

“The crisis that we’re experiencing now with the (Highway) Trust Fund—it’s not like people didn’t see it coming,” she said. “I worked on SAFETEA-LU in the Senate, the predecessor bill to MAP-21. We had the spreadsheets in front of us. We could see what was going to happen at the end of SAFETEA-LU. It happened a little bit earlier than we thought because the gas tax revenues didn’t come in quite as we thought they were going to. But we figured ‘my goodness, that’s such a crisis, Congress will certainly deal with it by the time SAFETEA-LU is over.’ During that time, while SAFETEA-LU was running, there was also a major bridge collapse obviously in Minnesota, other very significant things. Fortunately, we thought, Congress is going to deal with this. Well we got to 2009, SAFETEA-LU ended. There was some talk of ‘let’s try to figure out something’ but there were a lot of other issues on the table. Extensions happened. General Fund transfers happened. And it didn’t get worked out. Now we’re facing a tremendous crisis … in 2015 and I look at that and I think ‘my goodness, Congress will certainly figure this out, right? They can’t not.’ But I think that the reality is that we haven’t as a transportation community done a good enough job of explaining why short-term fixes and short-term extensions don’t work. I think that the impact on projects, the increased costs to states and localities from having to borrow more because there’s a risk of whether the federal funds are actually going to come in, there’s a cost to that, a cost to the delay and even the uncertainty of federal funding.”

Kline said in the absence of federal support, many localities are working to fund investments that give their citizens transportation options. She hopes that spirit of cooperation and innovation can somehow rub off on Congress because the federal-state-local partnership on transportation needs to continue.

“I think in the past a lot of transportation has been about how do you connect one region to another and build out the interstate system,” she said. “Obviously, (that’s) incredibly important. Now we see transportation changing honestly to be more about how do people get around within a region. We’re working with a number of regions that are doing a ton of work themselves on raising revenues (through) local option sales taxes, bond measures, value capture strategies around their transportation investments. A lot of really exciting stuff is happening in these regions and I think absolutely it’s going to be more important going forward for regions to be able to bring value to the table, bring their own resources to the table, bring their own revenue sources. But I think one of the things we’ve seen is that none of them can do it all by themselves. There still needs to be a major partner at the federal level and at the state level to help these regions be able to move forward in the future. …We’ve been in places like Phoenix, Salt Lake City. I was in Nashville. I was in Tampa. Lots of excitement and energy. All of them are working in bipartisan fashion. … Congress is slow. Congress is always lagging what’s going on in the states. So I have to think eventually Congress is going to catch up with this because it is so bipartisan at the regional level that somehow it’s going to have to trickle up and eventually get a bipartisan solution out of Congress.”

Paul Feenstra of ITS America told legislators that instead of simply seeking hard-to-come-by funds to build new roads and facilities, many states and localities are turning to intelligent transportation system technologies to meet their transportation challenges.  

“In the absence of having enough money (for transportation), they’re trying to use technology to get more out of existing infrastructure, trying to manage traffic more effectively,” he said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of things happening. In some cases because bad things are happening on the overall funding level, we’ve seen this explosion of big data out there . … You’ve got sensors, traffic cameras, GPS signals, your cell phones that are providing data in some cases back to traffic management centers … and they’re able to respond to traffic incidents more effectively to actively manage traffic. In New York City, they have this Midtown in Motion project where they actually change traffic signals based on real-time backups and so trying to get more throughput, trying to improve efficiency, which is obviously good for commuters but it’s also good for the environment, good for businesses. That’s really the direction I think we’re seeing in a number of states. … You’re seeing the private sector providing direct-to-consumer services whether they’re smartphone apps that give you turn-by-turn directions and real-time traffic information. One of the big areas is smart parking, actually directing people to open parking spots in real time. There have been studies that have shown that up to 30 percent of traffic in many cities is just (people) circling looking for parking. Providing people real-time parking information and the ability to pay and even reserve spots is one of the next things that’s coming.”

But Feenstra also noted that choosing to invest in ITS technologies isn’t always the easy political choice since it doesn’t usually involve a splashy ribbon cutting as a big new road or bridge project usually does.  

“One of the challenges as you have all these great things happening with data and with information, how do you then compile these together in more integrated fashion so that you don’t have lots of different systems that aren’t talking to each other so you can have a more effective strategy for managing traffic across the modes—the highways, transit systems, buses, parking. So that’s sort of an exciting thing that we’re involved with but I think it’s going to be one of the areas where you’re going to see a lot of change at the state and local level and it’s one of the areas where state legislators can be supportive of the state DOTs and the cities and MPOs because a lot of them face pressure to put their money into new highways and bridges and the good projects we want to fund but the ones that involve ribbon cuttings whereas investing in technological solutions, you’re not cutting a ribbon, you may be making a traffic signal work more efficiently. You may be investing in safety technology, bus and pedestrian warning systems, crash avoidance systems. Those aren’t necessarily as sexy as some of the ribbon cutting ceremonies and so being supportive of the state DOTs as a lot of them are trying to invest in this—and the cities especially are pushing this—is something that I think you guys can be very helpful (on).”

The panelists also weighed in on various provisions included in MAP-21 as well as some of the legislation’s shortcomings.

“There were a lot of positive programmatic reforms (in MAP-21) and also importantly … a lessening of the federal funding role—that is, grants—but a substantial, huge increase in the federal financing role,” Frankel said. “I think you all know the TIFIA program increased eight or 10 times. This is a credit and credit enhancement program. … The President in his budget for fiscal 2014 called for an increase in the cap for private activity bonds. … The calls for a National Infrastructure Bank. … A lot of initiatives the federal government is saying that are to allow federal money to be leveraged. But the flip side of that is that the burden is on states to put together packages to use federal money effectively to leverage other public and private investment. If the federal government is making a loan on a major project as it has in the TIFIA program, you’ve got to create revenue streams. Maybe it’s a dedicated sales tax, maybe it’s a tax on parking or an increase in the gasoline tax or tolls if it’s a highway project. So the burden is on you to take advantage of the federal financing by creating appropriate revenue streams to leverage this effectively.”

Frankel said one glaring omission in MAP-21 is any reform of the planning or capital programming process.

“I don’t think our transportation planning institutions or processes—MPOs, state agencies—are really as effective as they need to be and this really dictates how money is to be spent,” he said. “If we don’t have very much money, what we have has got to be really effectively targeted on those projects and those programs that bring the greatest returns. That’s one of the great appeals of (ITS technologies). Sometimes investments in incremental improvements, in using information effectively—the benefits from that are 10 or 20-to-1. Instead of building some project that someone can cut a ribbon on but in which the benefits are not anywhere near like that and the benefit-to-cost may be barely over 1-to-1. I think we need to focus on that. We need to emphasize programs not projects and all this requires a rationalization of the MPO process. … My little state of Connecticut has I think 13 MPOs and most of them aren’t any good, frankly. And it’s not their fault. They’re just too small, they don’t have the staff, they don’t have the resources and it ends up to be a logrolling process not really building comprehensive, strategic plans or deciding how to target the money in that particular region. These are changes that need to be made at the state level so that we have good, effective capital programming. If funds are scarce, the investments have to be wise and that burden, more than any other place in my opinion, is on state legislatures. … From my point of view … two of the most important projects to southern New England are outside of the jurisdiction of any of the New England states—the Tappan Zee Bridge and building a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York. That has tremendous implications in terms of the economy of southern New England and getting a process that kind of recognizes that and can somehow be supportive of that I think is really critical.”

Kline agreed that capital planning process is generally flawed and rarely gets the support it needs.

“If you think getting people in Congress to care about transportation is tough, getting them to care about transportation planning is impossible,” Kline said. “Just that word itself is a killer. Planning? What do you mean you’re going to plan something? We want you to build, build! We want something you can cut the ribbon on or count the jobs from. Planning is the first thing to cut, first thing to go and yet in a sense it’s the most important because it determines whether you’re getting the best bang for your buck on the projects that are ultimately done. And I think a lot of the challenge with MPOs actually does come back to … in most people’s minds, if they were to even know that MPOs existed and they went—heaven forefend—to an MPO briefing or meeting, even the relatively knowledgeable average person probably couldn’t really follow what was being discussed because so much is presented in terms of transportation jargon. It’s presented as ‘here is what the MPO projects.’ But no one in the room can really question whether that’s really true. What are you basing that model on? That type of discussion doesn’t really happen. Transportation for America doesn’t have an official position on consolidation. We haven’t really gone into that. We do think that regional cooperation is extremely important and we also think that transparency is extremely important and one of the ways that you get to transparency and accountability is when the general public can actually understand the transportation discussion and I think the system we have right now doesn’t really allow for that.”

Feenstra noted that transparency and accountability are a key focus under MAP-21.

“One of the other big policy reforms in MAP-21 was the whole performance initiative because that’s something that’s really going to trickle down to the states and the MPOs after the national performance measures are set,” he said. “States will have a year to set statewide performance measures and this is going to be not just measuring the state of the infrastructure but also areas like traffic congestion, like freight movement. So this is going to generate a whole new level of accountability that states and MPOs are going to have to actually collect data to figure out how their system is performing and then try to figure out what to do about it, how to improve that performance. So that’s something that’s going to be coming down to the state and local level. Something Massachusetts did really right—and this is probably MassDOT and not the MPOs—but they took all of this data that they’re already collecting on the system and made it public, just put it out there for anybody to use. It’s all public data. … States are collecting all this data and they’re going to be collecting even more of it through this performance measurement process. Making that public is a great way to improve services for the public to help improve the overall user experience, which hopefully then can tie back into trying to get more funding overall for infrastructure as people see that their money is being used effectively and they’re actually getting better services out of it.”

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