Posts Tagged ‘editorial’

Can Blazing Saddles Demostrate the NEPA Process

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

When discussing transportation, there is always the issue of community involvement.  (FHWA has several good resources here on transportation capacity building and working with the public sector.)  However, it is often difficult to explain why the community should care about transportation investments within their area, including environmental issues.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) calls for Federal Agencies to address environmental concerns during the decision making process.  While many resources explaining the NEPA process, I think the Council on Environmental Quality, Executive Office of the President, “A Citizen’s Guide to the NEPA” ranks among the best.

However, when explaining the need for communities to be engaged in transportation, I fall back to one of the great comedies. This week celebrates the 40th anniversary of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”.   I often mention “Blazing Saddles” could be used to demonstrate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process at a local level.   You have to stay with me on this one and no, don’t take this too seriously…

We have a proposed project:  Building a Railroad through Rock Ridge

The railroad wants to align its tracks through the town Rock Ridge to avoid the quicksand.   Initially, Hedley Lamarr wants the population to move but the community protests the recent acts of terrorism.  In a town hall (community meeting), they appeal to the Governor for assistance.  (Yes, I know there was no Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in the movie.)


So, to drive the people to support the project (i.e., move) an outsider is sent into influence the situation. 

Hedley Lamarr hopes that Sheriff Bart will drive the people away, but instead the Sheriff rallies the people together in opposing the project.  An alternative is considered and built, although the original project supporters are not necessary away of this…

There is a huge fight over the project, but at the end, there was no resolution to the proposed project.

Once I explained this to someone, they said.  “Cool, but you forgot that at the end the consultant drove away in a Cadillac.”

In sum, Blazing Saddles matched against the NEPA process outlined in the Citizen’s Guide…




nepa and blazing saddles

Well, there you have it… Blazing Saddles and the NEPA process.  I am a big Mel Brooks’ fan so its always nice to revisit the “old” classics.  I hope you enjoyed my little editorial on the challenges of making freight transportation improvements!

“Groundhog’s Day” and Transportation (Lambert’s Langiappe- ITTS February 2014 Newsletter)

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Well, it’s February and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. According to legend, we should expect six more weeks of winter. Although groundhogs are not necessarily the best weather forecasters, based on recent winter storms, maybe the groundhog was right this year! Recent winter storms demonstrate just how dependent we have become on transportation. No matter the forecast, people expect to return home safely and to have their heating fuel delivered. For example, a January snowstorm crippled Atlanta, causing people to abandon their cars on stand-still highways. While severe, this was not an isolated case as most people can relate to being caught in some unexpected traffic situation.

But there exists another related reference. In the movie “Groundhog Day,” weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) repeats the same day over and over again. He cannot escape his purgatory until he shapes the perfect day, full of compassion and vigor, and in doing so, transforms himself. The transportation sector is similarly stuck in a “Groundhog Day ”-type situation. There appear to more winter days ahead of us, as system conditions and traffic congestion worsen, reminding us of the infrastructure’s fragility. Considering that the Highway Trust Fund may run out of moneys this year, the question that has plagued decision makers is how to “fix” infrastructure funding without raising taxes, tolling, or any other “inconvenience” to the driving public. (As often happens, inactivity today may create future inconveniences!) Unlike Phil Connors we recreate “Groundhog Day” during each reauthorization cycle, not only for highways, but for other infra-structure funding bills as well, unable to resolve our dilemma.

A clear vision regarding a “perfect” transportation system for our country in the next 40 years is truly needed.  But visioning will also require action, such as preparing for that future and identifying ever changing user needs. In the movie, Phil Connors learned to play the piano and speak French, which helped him achieve his transformation into a “new” man. Maybe by agreeing on a shared future, we will not return into our burrows, but will instead enjoy the warmth of an early spring.

Lambert’s Lagniappe (Jan 2013)

Monday, January 28th, 2013

New Year’s Resolutions…

After most of us finish New Year’s dinner, we begin think about what is ahead in 2013, and that often means a New Year’s resolu-tion. Generally, we pick resolutions that are fairly easy to define, such as stopping or starting some activity. Ultimately, one’s success depends on three things: Is there a clear, measurable outcome (lose weight or get to a certain weight)? What are we willing to give up to achieve that goal (will I work out or change my diet)? How will others respond in supporting these changes (do I stop the “cheesecake of the week” club meeting)?  Oftentimes, success depends upon long term visualization of how one will look, feel,  or act once the change is made.

Given the long term question of building and maintaining public sector infrastructure (roads, bridges, locks, runways, etc.) it seems like the nation is struggling with its own  transportation resolutions for 2013. Last Saturday, CNN’s “Your Money” aired a discussion regarding the gap in infrastructure funding. As with most discussions on this issue, the  outcome remained unresolved. The benefits can be demonstrated, but we already have a mature system that works. How much more do we really need to invest?

What is clear is that people are expecting to see more demonstrated value for investment in transportation infrastructure, such as how new investments will produce broad benefits. In the future, performance measures should serve as important tools for prioritizing investments, especially from federal sources, although what measures will be used remains up in the air. For example, do we look at reducing travel costs or improving safety? Do we seek to minimize deviation from free flow conditions or simply to build out the planned network with more integrated intelligent transportation service options? How do we encourage economic competitiveness for domestic loads or exports? How will we fund these projects–through a gas tax, user fees, or some other mechanism? In all things, the ability to carry out any resolution seems to focus on defining, committing, and receiving support from others.
This year, like most people, I am trying to lose weight. (Unfortunately, I did well on last year’s weight gain resolution!) I have some definite steps in mind as to how I want to be at the end of 2013. I don’t think we can say the same regarding any resolutions about the transportation system for next January.

Lambert’s Langiappe (Dec Newsletter)

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Over the past few years, there has been a barrage of pundits predicting that transportation infrastructure needs will lead to a widespread collapse of the American economy.  In some cases, it is  discussed in regards to animal images: such as “cooking the frog”, where gradual increases in temperature result in the frog’s demise, “Chicken Little”, where the sky is falling, or that of the “elephant in the room”, a problem so big that it is ignored.

While reflecting upon what is the true way to discuss the future of transportation, I was petting my three legged dog, Mr. Sweetie.  (Yes, that’s his name, and no, he is not named after me.  My father, a veterinarian, rescued Mr. Sweetie after being injured in a car accident.  Mr. Sweetie’s front paw was beyond repair, which resulted in my father amputating Mr. Sweetie’s limb.)  Mr. Sweetie quickly adjusted to life on the farm, and while he can not run as fast as the other dogs, he gets around fairly well.  In this regard, transportation is something like Mr. Sweetie: “We will never have the full dream of unlimited mobility with little costs”, just as Mr. Sweetie remains unable to run as fast as the other dogs.  Mr. Sweetie has adjusted to his limitations, and in many ways, we adjust to our own limitations concerning mobility.

This does not mean that we can not expect more of our transportation system.    When I was younger, the future was to be like the Jetsons’, with its world of flying cars (and traffic jams).  At the same time, there were discussions on the ability of going anywhere in the U.S. as the interstates were connecting America.  Transportation changed not only the U.S. but the global economy.  But these changes also mean that more challenges lie ahead of us.

Despite these concerns of building out the nation’s infrastructure, 2012 was a positive year in the transportation industry on a legislative front.  The passage of MAP-21 shows the willingness of legislatures to talk about highway and transit needs, while assisting state/local investments.  The bill began a process of considering the need to improve freight movement on the nation’s highways and through major facilities.  Also, discussions on the Water Resources Development Act have begun.  In sum, the need for addressing transportation is slowly becoming seen as a question of improving America’s economic fortunes (although funding issues continue to stifle the debate…).  Ultimately, whatever the future of transportation becomes in twenty years, one thing is clear: there will still be mobility needs not addressed and people will adjust accordingly, just as Mr. Sweetie has in response to his own limitation.


Interview for Southeast Supply Chain News

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I was recently interviewed by the Southeast Supply Chain news about ITTS.  The discussion included why I was involved in transportation, and some other personal information about me, before going into a discussion about ITTS and transportation.  During the interview I discussed how we are disconnected from understanding how transportation creates opportunities for the region, especially since most of the states in the Southeast are very dependent upon each other.

The Southeast Supply Chain News is a free email service provided by the Charleston Regional Business Journal.  You can subscribe here.

Lambert’s Lagniappe, October 2010

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

During one of my recent trips, a “ding” was discovered during the final inspection after everyone had been seated on the plane. After listening to the standard update announcements (which basically stated nothing had changed from the last announcement) someone questioned if the train would have been a better choice. This quickly led to a discussion not only about the “joys” of traveling but also passenger rail service. It was an
interesting discussion, as the week before I had rode the City of New Orleans from Jackson, Mississippi to Hammond, Louisiana.

For several of the Jackson passengers, this was their first train ride. They were clearly excited. (There was one guy who sang the chorus to Arlo Guthrie’s “City Of New Orleans”, but everyone ignored him.) They were abuzz when a train pulled into the station, only to discover it was a Canadian National train. Obviously, they felt disappointed when they realized it was not the Amtrak train.

A few weeks earlier, I participated in a rail panel at the SAHSTO annual meeting.  Both Gene Conti, Secretary, North Carolina Department of Transportation, and Paul Nissenbaum, Federal Railroad Administration, spoke on the need to encourage and fund passenger rail services. I spoke about ensuring rail services should remain a viable transportation option for freight traffic in the region. When in D.C. the following week, I had a long discussion about the future of railroads with several FRA staffers. The same concerns were raised: how do you encourage more passenger rail service over commercial railroad networks?  Passenger rail services do operate well in certain corridors. However, operating freight and passenger services over the same line requires a delicate “touch” (which was strongly highlighted when discussing rail operations in Chicago). Anything we do regarding rail services will be an expensive proposition. We need to educate the public about the associated benefits and challenges, so they are not waiting for the wrong train at the station.

“Summer Hopes” Lambert’s Lagniappe August 2010

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

August is an interesting month, as people head off to long expected vacations, kids return to school, and football practices begin. In some ways, August is a month full of expectations and hope. Hopes that the vacation will leave them refreshed, the kids will excel in school, and that your team wins its respective championship. It seems the same optimism is shaping discussions on freight transportation improvements.

Recently, I had the pleasure to meet with Jolene Molitoris, Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation. Ben Ritchey with the Arcadia Group commented after the meeting that when we discussed freight movements, the conversation was very pragmatic. However, when the subject turned onto passenger mobility issues, the focus became more philosophical. This was in contrast to the TRB summer meeting, where I moderated a session on freight corridors. The presenters discussed the importance of broad freight corridors, such as the use of waterways, railroads and building local access that can attract or encourage additional freight traffic. In all cases, the need for long point-to-point freight corridors are seen as important in supporting both regional and national economic growth.

Clearly, philosophy and pragmatism do shape transportation decisions, but the vision of American transportation into the future remains unclear.  Regarding passenger traffic, the discussion tends to focus on the issue of how we will live. The new Urbanism, with a focus on walkable cities connected by public transit, sometimes ignores the global supply chain by assuming everything will be sourced locally. (Michael Vanderbeek with the Port of Long Beach compared this to designing a building without an HVAC system.) At the same time, freight carriers tend to be consumed by pocketbook issues related to regulations and taxes. They expect that the infrastructure they need will be there when their trucks start rolling.

There appear to be some discussion that a clear national policy focusing on prioritizing the main improvements along the corridors may be one approach going forward. This view is echoed by the recently proposed Focusing Resources, Economic Investment, and Guidance to Help Transportation Act of 2010 and the Inland User Board’s recommendations to improve waterway navigation. Such approaches may not be equally shared by all, as priorities are established either by formula competition or by the user community itself to ensure the overall system would get investment in key projects.

Clearly, such a discussion is needed, with strong elements of both theory and reality. The real question is: are these simply summer dreams or will these endure longer than autumn leaves?

“Buying A Southern Car” – Lambert’s Lagniappe – July 2010

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Growing up in Louisiana, my dad drove mostly Chevrolets. My first car was a full sized Chevy Scottsdale truck that we used to haul horses, hay and other things. As a kid, I never thought about purchasing a “foreign car”. Over time, my attitude to foreign cars changed, as has most Americans. In June, I purchased a new Nissan Altima, a car built in Canton, Mis­sissippi. Most people do not realize that today, there are more cars built in the U.S. by foreign owned companies that by the traditional “Big 3” (General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford).

One of the strongest drivers of that trans­formation is the story of the growth of the Southern Auto Industry since the 1980s. While Kentucky remains one of the leaders in the Southern Industry, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina have all attached foreign automotive producers. Although Mississippi got into the foreign auto assembly industry relatively late, they have also seen their auto industry grow, including the recent announcement of Toyota to develop the Tunica site.

In June, I attended the Southern Growth Policy Board’s meeting in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a very good conference, with a strong focus on the economic development aspect of the Auto Industry. While there was some remarks upon the future of the industry, most felt that the region will remain a strong leader in the production of automobiles, due to its infrastructure and access to markets.

I am in the process of finishing up a study of the automotive industry in the Southeast with Chad Miller at the University of Southern Missis­sippi. We will release the report and annotated bibliography in a few weeks, but clearly the region has benefited from the investment in the auto industry. So, in a twist of fate, I am part of the story that I am researching – how the South has been transformed not only by Foreign Investment in the Auto Industry, but in a changing perspective of the region’s eco­nomic potential.

“In Like A Lion, Out Like a Lamb?” Lambert’s Lagniappe- March 2010

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

For most people, February felt like a “long winter of discontent”, with snow and cold gripping most of the country. The old saying, “March comes in like a Lion and goes out like a Lamb”, hopefully will ring true this year.

Although most of the country endured cold weather in February, two major actions influenced U.S. transportation: The TIGER Grants and the extension of the Highway Trust Fund. The TIGER grant announcements demonstrated that a successful solicitation process can be done to address critical needs. Across the Southeast, these included several projects that will benefit commercial freight movements, such as rail
projects in the Appalachian region, port development in Gulfport, Mississippi, and I-95 improvements in South Carolina.  But like all things, there always remain more needs than money.

The month ended with the failure to extend authorization of the Highway Trust Fund. While an extension was approved a few days later, the resultant stoppages demonstrated the commitment needed to develop long term, multiyear projects (We need a similar commitment to WRDA projects!) Finally, February marked the one year anniversary of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. While others can argue the jobs creation numbers, the states committed all the money to projects, and projects are being implemented. Overall, it was a busy month for transportation policy in the U.S.

In February, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, predicting a longer winter. But Spring is coming, and March holds the promise of better days. Like the approaching summer, a meaningful commitment to infrastructure (and jobs) seems far away, but it appears that more see the value of funding our transportation needs.

“The Giving Tree” Lambert’s Lagniappe-July 09

Monday, February 15th, 2010

The Texas Transportation Institute released the “2009 Urban Mobility Report”. The report always receives wide distribution, and this year, the economic recession caused a drop in vehicle miles traveled. As the authors noted, traffic mirrors the economy, and although volumes declined last year, they are expected to return once a recovery begins. The authors cautioned that the report remains the same as it has in previous years: we are still spending a lot of time in traffic.

In thinking about this, I was struck with the parallel of the highway system to Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”. The story highlights the relationship of a boy and a tree.  When the boy was young, he enjoyed access to the tree. He swung on the branches, ate of the apples and wore a garland of leaves. The tree was happy as the boy had unlimited access to all the tree could offer. This unlimited access to the highway is similar to the myth of the open road, where we find relatively empty roads one can drive without constraint. This was the futuristic model with efficient traffic flows. (The myth is still echoed in auto advertisements.)

As the story progresses, the boy grows up and does not play with the tree. Instead, the boy wants money and asks the tree for help. The tree tells the boy to sell the apples. Like the Federal aid program, there was enough available to finance other valuable programs while not compromising the tree. The interstate provided connectivity, which generated economic growth and opportunities for the nation.

Later, the boy comes back and wants to build a house, so he removes the branches. As related to highways, the branches mirror the suburbanization of the United States with the resulting lost of the urban city. But this transformation was not without cost as sprawl and congestion began to cripple national mobility.

Next, the boy comes back and removes the trunk to build a boat, as the boy is sad, and wants to go away from his problems. Here, the congestion and transit issues are leading us to fundamentally consider a new transportation system. In some way, we no longer viewed the construction of the highway transportation system as relevant for national discussions as “the work of constructing the interstate system” was completed. At the time, ISTEA was viewed as the beginning of a new era in transportation.

Finally, the boy returns as an old man. The tree, now but a stump, cannot provide the boy with anything but a place to sit. The old man, without any energy or needs, is content to simply sit on the stump, which is where the TTI study comments on our present situation.

There is a limit to how much any analogy can be made but for both TTI and “The Giving Tree” the story ends the same – everyone is sitting. I need to read more stories with happy endings.