By Jake Lynch
Travelers, miners, and adventurers, clad in animal skins and weighed down with trunks of Klondike gold and stories of exploration, used to gather at the Arctic Club Hotel to drink whiskey and share tales.
It was the gold coming down from the Yukon which built their luxurious, men’s only club in the early 1900s.
A few years ago, this historic landmark was transformed into a top of line hotel, combining its historic charm with modern conveniences and design.
And so it was fitting that in the same rooms that once entertained stories of pioneering exploration, a new vision of our transportation future was launched recently that hopes to change modern life in America in the same way that gold and the railway changed it 100 years ago.
The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a Washington, D.C.-based group consisting of former senators, congressmen, civic leaders and policy experts, launched “Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy,” in the club on Aug. 27.
It was the first in a series of national events designed to draw attention to the plan and foster discussion among transportation officials and the public ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline to bring a new national surface transportation bill before Congress.
“The deadline for the new authorization will not be met,” said project co-chair and former U.S. Sen. Slate Gorton in his introduction at the Arctic Club. “The Senate seems to have little interest in doing so.”
An extension of about 12 months is likely, and the BPC plans to use this extension to press upon legislators the importance of a dynamic and unified transportation framework, the first of its kind since Presidents Roosevelt and then Eisenhower oversaw the construction of a national highway system in the 1930s and ’40s.
Joining Gorton at the discussion were many of the state’s prime movers in transportation policy, including State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, former Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Doug MacDonald, CEO of Sound Transit Joni Earl, WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond, Chair of Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce J. Tayloe Washburn, Puget Sound Regional Council’s Transportation Planning Director Charlie Howard, and Commissioner of the Washington State Transportation Commission Dan O’Neal.
In the audience were mayors and former mayors, senators and civic leaders.
They heard that commuters, freight operators, the economy and the environment are all suffering from the lack of a unified national transportation plan, which is encouraging a fragmented, inefficient system.
“At the federal level, transportation has lost any real sense of goals,” Gorton said. “I think it’s most important that we focus laser-like on the proposition of how we measure success. What kind of metrics do we use, and how do we determine how discretionary grants are awarded? What is success in the transportation field?”
The BPC claims that federal transportation policy, which hasn’t been overhauled in decades, needs immediate reform.
“There is no federal requirement to optimize returns on public investments, and current programs are not structured to reward positive outcomes, or even to document them,” it says in the BPC executive summary.
Their National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) calls for transportation projects to be seen as components of a larger program of metropolitan investments, all designed with five major goals in mind: Economic growth, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, energy security and environmental protection, and safety.
How a centralized effort like this plays itself out is of course seen in the types of projects and infrastructure that are supported. The BPC wants such decisions to be “mode-neutral,” evaluated by performance toward achieving the goals and not hindered by bias toward a particular mode, be it public transit or roads expansion.
This mode neutrality matches the non-partisan nature of the group, which has stated a determination not to let political allegiances or corporate interests skew the plan’s intent.
Rarely are such lofty ideals matched with the political muscle to make it occur.
This is a group with real experience in the ways of Washington, and the group’s chairs, which include Gorton and former U.S. Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert and Martin Olav Sabo, and former Mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer, have spent the past month lobbying hard in the halls of power.
One of things they are pushing for is a funding approach where competition for federal investment in new capacity would be prioritized based partly on competition.
Whether it’s light rail, car pooling incentives, HOV lanes or expanded bus systems that prove to be the most effective solution to a particular problem, then that is one that is rewarded and funded.
“The federal government shouldn’t be concerned with how CO2 emissions are decreasing, just that they are,” said Joshua Shank, BPCs Director of Transportation Research.
Schank said that just building new infrastructure was not always the answer.
“For example, land use changes, or road tolling, might be a more effective solution than a large investment in something,” he said. “If it is, those people will get the money – they will be rewarded for innovative thinking.”
Schank said that gas tax revenue was becoming a counter-productive source of revenue, and would continue to decline in the future as consumers looked for other modes.
“New revenue should be linked to performance,” he said. “That’s we’re working on in Capitol Hill.”
The role of IT
But in order to build a program based around rewarding the performance of transportation projects, first they must provide a way to accurately record that performance.
A big part of the BPC plan is technology – better technology producing accurate and timely data.
A presentation by Information Technology Professor Thomas Horan demonstrated ways in which real time traffic information, utilizing cell phone technology and input from commuters and travelers, would give a clearer idea of what was happening on roads and the state of transit networks.
“Transportation may be one of the least innovative sectors of the economy,” Horan said. “We have this need for innovation, this need for better performance data. Into this problem space should come technology.”
With his own presentation beset by technical problems, however, Horan’s call for a long overdue improvement of transportation technology out in front of a faulty, flickering projector screen was a reminder of the huge gap that still exists between what makes sense and what actually goes on.
“Only 37 percent of urban freeways have implemented Intelligent Transportation Systems program,” he said. “The Department of Transportation does not have data in some critical areas.”
Horan said that this area was one in which the government would benefit from partnerships with the private sector.
“With all due respect to my colleagues at the DOT, it is not exactly a hotbed of innovation,” he said. “The U.S. constitutes the largest market for IT systems in the world. And a lot the developments were are looking for have export potential.”
Through private sector innovation Horan hopes to see “a credible IT system for assessing performance at a federal, state and local level.”
“Now, everyone has to measure their own performance. And they do a so-so job of it, because they don’t have the money for it,” he said.
Horan says that by employing a cutting edge system across the whole country, economies of scale would be achieved, saving money and providing reliable data.
He said that performance metrics, such as accident hot spots and historically congested roads, need to be not just for policy makers and planners, but for the end-users, who in term contribute to the information gathering.
Better technology would also make a variable pricing system more efficient, using higher tolls to encourage travelers to use less congested routes.
Bryan Mistele, CEO of Kirkland-based traffic technology company INRIX, said that the technology for better traffic monitoring is already there, in the cars themselves.
“The vast majority of cars built today by the top three car companies are embedded with chips to send data back to the manufacturer,” he said. “They are already tracking things like fuel use.”
The need for services
Part of the reason as to why the federal government hasn’t paid proper attention to transportation in the last few decades is that “it isn’t particularly sexy.”
“The president isn’t elected on a platform of transportation,” Schank said. “But if we can make people see how this is important, to see how their lives are affected, then we can make them realize how money spent makes their lives better.”
There are a couple of “sexy” aspects to the transportation debate – the environment, and national security.
Reducing oil consumption is at the heart of almost all high level conversations about transportation systems in America, and so to it is one of the BPC’s five core goals.
“One of the failures of the current system is that it doesn’t link transportation policy to energy security and climate change,” said Steve Marshall from the Cascadia Center for Regional Development. “97 percent of our transportation is fueled by oil. People literally do not have a choice. If you want to get from here to there, you have to burn oil.”
“We depend on imported oil for 60 percent of our total consumption,” Marshall said. “That’s $1 billion dollars a day during the peaks. You compare that to a stimulus investment of $700 billion over three years. A comprehensive investment in plug-in technology would amount to three days investment in foreign oil.”
In the audience, city of Everett councilman Paul Roberts asked how an increase in electricity use would impact the electricity grid.
“Will we need to look at retrofitting cities?” he asked.
Marshall replied that predictions on what increasing electric car use would do to power grids varied, “depending on how bullish your projections are.”
He said that the keys would be creating a usage system that took advantage of off-peak times, at night, and spreading the points geographically.
“But utilities move slowly, transportation systems move slowly,” Marshall said. “We need to start now so we don’t have this problem 10 or 15 years down the road.”
From the locals
Senator Haugen, while supportive of a nationwide focus on transportation planning, tempered the meeting’s optimism with some caveats.
“It is vital that the federal and state efforts compliment each other – that’s a no-brainer,” she said. “You are calling for performance audits, but they cost money. We need to make sure this doesn’t cause a lot of extra paperwork at the state level. Money from the federal level comes with tight strings. There needs to be more flexibility with the money we receive, at the state and local level.”
Senator Haugen, who lives on Camino Island, said that the goals identified in the BPC plan were in line with the state’s.
“Our first priority is preservation – we need to maintain our existing system,” she said. “The environment is a priority for the state of Washington too.”
Senator Haugen warned, however, that adopting carbon emission reduction programs like that in California would reduce revenue by $90 million by 2010.
Joni Earl and Paula Hammond both said they would be watching very closely to see how any new legislation proposed prioritizing which projects were funded.
What it boils down to is, do you fund projects in a certain area because they are doing the worst? Because their performance/congestion/safety is poor?
Or do you reward well-functioning systems, applauding them for high performance with money?
Under the BPC plan, while states will still receive “formula funding,” meaning pre-prescibed funding based on population and perceived need, there will be a growing emphasis on competitive funding, rewarding the brightest and the best ideas.
“I am not a big fan of the stick, I like the carrot better,” Hammond said. “This might a turning point to incentivize the way we fund transportation projects.”
Earl referred to the “modal wars” in the state – rail vs. road – and said that Sound Transit was very used to competing for money in this parochial and sometimes belligerent environment.
She would know. Earl who is widely credited with bring Sound Transit back from the brink of obscurity and securing the funding for the first phase of the Puget Sound area light rail system which opened recently.
“Performance criteria is important and integral,” she said. “We are not afraid of performance criteria at all. But competitive dollars are very speculative, and it makes planning very difficult.”
Late in September, the BPC will take their traveling show to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, one of a number of stops in major cities around the nation.
Jake Lynch is editor of the Issaquah and Sammamish Reporter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.