Posts Tagged ‘policy’

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.


Energy Policy and Transportation

Monday, August 15th, 2011

In discussing the future of transportation, it is important to understand that large part of the U.S. transportation involves the movement of energy.  But it is in the use of that energy that we are able to enjoy “the American way of life”.   It is clear that the availability of energy will largely shape our economic future.

Here is a new video from the PACE Institute.  (I met with Lance Brown when he was filming this video in New Orleans and he spoke at the  ITTS Conference in Memphis.)   He raises the question that new energy policies should not ignore the costs to consumers when considering new options.  Such considerations are important, especially when considering new policies.

This does not necessary appear to be a contrast to the broader question about the future of energy, as highlighted or by Chris Martenson.  Mr. Martenson suggests we are past peak oil, and the future of energy will dramatically change over the next twenty years from increased competition and misaligned expectations regarding energy policies and availability.  (This was one of the four scenarios “One World Order” outlined in discussed at the AASHTO/Freight Partnership meeting.

These discussions about energy production and use suggest that a discussion on energy, ranging  consumer and business costs, cargoes carried and mode, to social costs (externalities) of transportation (emissions, noise, etc.) such as in GAO report 11-134,  and pipeline safety, are just as relevant when discussing energy policy as is the creation of the energy itself.




Lambert’s Lagniappe-Mowing the Grass and Infrastructure Maintenance

Monday, August 15th, 2011

As I was mowing my grass last weekend, I was thinking about home maintenance. I often joke about just paving the front yard and painting it green, but I don’t think my wife would find it attractive, and grazing sheep are definitely out of the question. So, here I am yet again, mowing the yard. While I could outsource my lawn maintenance (especially when it’s roaring hot outside) I choose not too for many reasons. This means that I must find the time to do the required yard work. When I bought the house, I knew I would be responsible for the yard; for basically, any asset you own, owns you.

Like any homeowner, the public sector is responsible for the maintenance of highways, waterways, or airports. It is often easier to find money to do something new (such as buy a house), but it is in maintenance issues where the challenge exists, as you have to balance your budget and your time.

When we consider transportation investment, we often focus on the positives—the access to new markets, mobility, and economic development— and hope that the transportation system that we operate today will provide those opportunities tomorrow. In a recent TREDIS run I conducted on the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a one-time permanent reduction in total transportation costs of 0.5% would lead to an average annual net gain of 500 new jobs added over the next thirty years. Such numbers sound good until you realize that it assumes these jobs will likely depend upon some transportation network.

It is easy to ignore the fact that a mature system requires more maintenance; just like any house still needs the grass cut and beds weeded. On second thought, I should pattern my yard maintenance on the public sector example. I will not spend any time on yard work not directly involved in planting new plants while ignoring existing plants (highway construction or maintenance) and spending no more than, say 30 minutes or so a week on total yard work (that seems to be how the nation incrementally funds the Corps’ major rehabilitation or dredging projects). I am sure that my wife and neighbors will understand that I have better things to do than yard work, especially once football season kicks off.


The Future of American Infastructure

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

The April 20-May 6th Economist published an article entitled:  “Life in the Slow Lane”  (I am sure an obvious pun on the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, itself a commentary on misspent priorities and self destruction).  This article is referenced the recent Congressional Budget Office’s report on Infrastructure spending, which highlights trends in funding transportation in the U.S.

The Economist article reports (as if this information is something new) on the chronic underfunding of transportation in the U.S., and the demise of a once great transportation network.  When combined with the various reports and studies that have been written over the past ten years, the sum of the articles point to a lack of  will to do something that everyone knows is critical – improve transportation networks.

Generally, spending on infrastructure has tracked general spending at the Federal level (this includes all expenditures (highway, railroads, airports, waterways, etc.)  reported by Since 1960, expenditures on transportation increased as the U.S. built out the interstate transportation system, waterways (such as the Tenn-Tom) and locks and dams, and airports through the U.S.  while transit systems were also being developed. The Age of the Engineer was in full swing.   (Figure 1.)

Figure 1.  %Change in total Federal Spending on Transportation and Total Federal Spending.

While spending increased, the U.S. has continued to spend less in transportation as a share of total budgets for a long time (“a gradual disinvestment in the system?”). The net effect resulted in a decline in spending on transportation as a share of total federal expenditures, despite many authorized projects that have never been completed across the nation (Figure 2.).

Figure 2.  %Change in total Federal Spending on Transportation as a Share of Total Federal Spending

But focusing only on federal expenditures ignores  and under-reports the large volume of state expenditures on state and local transportation needs.  (Roughly When the role of state spending is added to the federal spending levels, we see that the while the percentage of total government expenditures has increased, the overtime, the share of total expenditures has declined across the entire U.S. at the same time that rising project costs, materials, and related fees and time has lead to a net slowing of projects being constructed while the maintenance backlog continues to overwhelm limited resources.

Figure 3.  %Change in total State, local and Federal Spending on Transportation as a Share of Total Spending


Given the rubik of discussions on freight security, livable communities, logistics lead economic development, climate change and energy policy, it is clear that future discussions regarding transportation in the U.S. will remain mired in questions about creating a vision.  The problem is that the potential change dollar’s role as an international currency may change, as well as the price of energy, which may force us to determine if we can continue to live  off the previous investments of our forefathers without developing our generation’s transportation legacy for America.  The question of livable cities, the investment in high speed rail, with the potential corresponding growth in new transportation/city frameworks (such as the   Center for Clean Air Policy’s “Growing Wealthier” suggests)  may be one future, but without the revenue and funding sources identified, I expect there to be more articles in the Economist complaining about America’s Infrastructure.



Rail Session at SASHTO

Monday, August 30th, 2010

While at the Southeastern Association of State Highway Transportation Officials annual meeting, I participated in a panel on freight railroads in the Southeast.  The other speakers were Gene Conti, Secretary, North Carolina Department of Transportation, and Paul Nissenbaum, Director, Office of Passenger and Freight Programs.  (My speech is posted here.)  When we are discussing the future of freight rail in the U.S., somethings we discuss the rail system as if it is a recent invention.  The U.S. remains the highest user of railroads in the  World, and to put more passenger service on the network must balance not only the line haul capacity, but other related items such as rail grade crossings, alignments, etc.   The comparisons to other regions regarding passenger rail are thus somewhat misleading, but the future economic prosperity of the U.S. will depend upon rail.  The question however is can we do something now that maximizes our rail network to balances  these conflicting goals.

I would be amiss if I don’t thank the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department for their efforts in making this an exceptional conference!

“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?

“New Year Predictions”, Lambert’s Lagniappe, Feb 2010

Monday, February 15th, 2010

As a sign of yet another year’s end, every­one who is an expert, ranging from football, to finances, and to health, are giv­ing their wise counsel. Here in New Orleans everyone is making Superbowl predictions. We know that the future is uncertain, and while we can only guess at where things are going, it is still useful to consider what we believe (or hope) will happen.

For the economy, most agree that we are slowly coming off the bottom, but the halcyon days remain a long way off. Regarding infrastructure funding, the discussions about reauthorization of the SAFETEA-LU, the TIGER grant process, and the need for additional investment in transportation continue. However, I am struck with the notion that we can not agree on what kind of transportation system we want to build and how it will be financed. But it seems that if only we have enough money we could build everything everyone wants.

Recently, I served as a panelist at the first of Secretary LaHood’s listening sessions. In going through the sessions, it was interesting how several panelists wanted a new transportation system based primarily on urban passenger transportation. The irony was also how everyone assumed that a torrent of federal funds will be unleashed to assist in mostly local transportation issues. It appears as if we have ignored the role of the federal and state government when it comes to providing infrastructure. The Federal role traditionally was to ensure the network works, and by extension, access to that network. Such an approach focused on connecting areas, as well as the major networks in the urban area and rural access points. The State was set up to ensure access exists for its citizens to the Federally funded infrastructure, but also to State and local networks.

While everyone sees the reality for reinvestment in transportation, it appears that most want the discussion to largely involve solving the urban transportation problem. This somewhat myopic view, while critical to local urban mobility, is not wise. It ignores both the role of equity amongst projects as well as the greater role of access to global markets. But it is safe to say that the future of transportation is based on many, but conflicting, views that must be reconciled as the Nation commits to a new transportation future. And that need for creating a national vision is about the only thing all the experts agree on.

“Changing Pork into Dinner”, Lambert’s Lagniappe, Dec 2009

Monday, February 15th, 2010

After attending several meetings on freight during the past few weeks, everyone seems to agree that Freight will remain an important part of the future of the Southeast going forward. From the region’s ports, and airports, there seems to be some optimism that we have passed through the worst of the crises. But we still have a long way to go to move our economy forward. The irony is over the past few weeks, I read several editorials in the general press about spending needless money on infrastructure.

Recently, President Obama encouraged more exports to provide jobs for American workers. There is a need to strengthen small businesses in the region. These businesses need access to ports, waterways, airports, as well as roadways, to sustain trade. With an estimated 10,870 jobs created for every $1billion spent on infrastructure, there is a need to look at relinking access to infrastructure. The pent up demand to reinvest in our “needless” infrastructure is evident by the overflow of applications for DOTD TIGER grants earlier this year. People view infrastructure as a critical need for reinvestment. We need to not think of these as “pork”, but the promise made regarding America’s access to markets.

“Everyone’s Ready to Play”, Lambert’s Lagniappe- Nov 2009

Monday, February 15th, 2010

It’s October, and the entire world is crazy. For sports, it’s the middle of football season, or should I say, the middle of the question regarding a playoff series for football or the BCS in general. Here in Louisiana, the Saints possibility going to the Super Bowl is a lead­ing story every day in the paper. For other sports, we are experiencing the hopes of a new season or the failures of the end of one. The World Series is going on. Basketball and hockey are also just starting their seasons.

In transportation, we are discussing what activities happened (or did not happen) during the Christmas shipping season and the timing of the economic recovery. The TIGER Grants have all been submitted, and everyone is hoping for progress on the reauthorization of the SAFETEA-LU or the highway bill. The ARRA funds have all been obligated, with some estimates regarding how it generated jobs related to infrastruc­ture spending.

It seems to be a time when everyone is waiting for something magical to happen, from the sports world to transportation. But despite the uncertainties of the economy and how our “team” is doing, there are some relationships that continue to exist. All of these things mentioned above require several things to happen. You have to have the right team, the right coach, the right objective, but mostly commitment (physi­cally and financially.) The Stimulus program demonstrated that the transportation industry is ready to carry out the necessary investment in our roadways and waterways, if given the chance. In some ways, the teams are ready to play; they are only waiting for the officials to show up with the game ball and a whistle!

“Good Enough”- Lambert’s Lagniappe, October 2009

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Wired Magazine (September 2009) ran an article entitled “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine”. The article discussed how the Flip camera revolutionized both the camera market, and how in other areas, the trend appears to be looking for simple solutions that adequately performs the required job. While the theory of “good enough” may apply to software, physical infrastructure may be past that point of simply being a convenience. Because of the economic downturn, everyone recognizes that the “new normal” means economic development and competitiveness is a new fact. This implies that the simple solutions of the past may not be the simple solutions in the future.

Earlier this year, KPMG International released a report on a survey of high level industry exec­utives regarding transportation. The report, “Bridging the Global Infrastructure Gap: Views from the Executive Suite”, was based on surveys with 328 high level executives across the globe. The survey, taken between November and December of 2008, reported that only 14% of the respondents believed that infrastructure was adequate for their business, with another 57% stating it was somewhat adequate, with 18% stating it was inadequate. Their outlook dims, as 77% stated that current infrastructure will not be sufficient for long term growth. As this perceived lack of infrastructure begins to influence multinational firms, the strate­gic investment of transportation to promote economic development appears to be more critical. We cannot simply accept a transportation system that is “good enough”. We have an opportunity to reinvigorate our domestic economy by linking our system into the global supply chains, providing jobs for American workers. However, this does not necessarily mean building all new roads and facilities, but learning to leverage and maintain the system already in place.

Recently, I stated that we should be planning on how our grandchildren go to work in thirty years, not where the pothole is today. Fixing today’s potholes may be good enough, but not good enough for our long term success.