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Turning to new ways of thinking about transportation

A report from the National Governors Association ATPI event

State governments must balance their budgets every year. They work hard to determine how to manage scarce resources in the most fiscally responsible ways, all to provide residents with safe access to transportation resources.

The National Governors Association (NGA) hosted its annual Governors’ Advisors Transportation Policy Institute (ATPI) event earlier this month. This closed-door meeting brings together advisors and key staff members to share policy solutions, participate in peer exchanges, and discuss timely transportation policy topics.

I had the opportunity to present and participate in this year’s NGA event, speaking about the intersection of public health and transportation. While I always appreciate the chance to share my views on policy solutions, I was especially excited to speak with state-level policymakers because these agency leaders have the greatest opportunity to the create systemic changes that are needed across the public sector.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic slowdown continues to loom large, generating serious repercussions across the nation, particularly due to the uncertainty about how far the virus will spread in the days and months ahead. In the transportation industry, we have known for at least a decade that our traditional way of funding and building infrastructure must evolve. The events of the past several months have only heightened the urgency to implement changes that will help communities and travelers now and in the future.

Among the top priorities cited by state and local transportation departments is curbing congestion -- in particular widening and building new highways. This is perennially among the most strategic investments states and localities make to help reduce congestion woes. However, despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars from 1993 to 2017, and increasing road capacity by 42%, congestion has still skyrocketed by 144%.  And in case you were wondering, the dramatic increase in congestion has emerged despite population growth of only 32%.

As the nation continues to struggle to maintain existing roads and bridges, in 2018 the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) showed that 73% of federal highway funds were spent on new capacity, compared to a mere 20% spent on repairs.

As state and local municipalities are forced to cut budgets, it’s critically important to prioritize maintenance and redesigns that incorporate safe, convenient multi-modal access on our existing transportation infrastructure. This is particularly important as our nation’s demographics evolve. Americans are living longer, and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reports that on average U.S. residents will outlive their ability to drive by up to 10 years. Unfortunately, however, the Governors Highway Safety Association’s research shows that pedestrian deaths are rising, with 6,590 pedestrians killed on U.S. roads in 2019, which is the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1988.

Leveraging new technology and innovative methods to better maintain our existing transportation infrastructure offers the best path forward for state and local government agencies to improve safety, reduce congestion, and responsibly manage scarce resources. For example, one of the most effective methods to get more people to walk, bike, or use public transit is to redesign existing roads to make it feel safe and convenient for everyone. Technology solutions such as pedestrian HAWK signals, intersection signals that turn green for buses, and cameras that can detect and ticket unsafe driving behavior will also help. Government agencies are also rethinking how they price valuable public assets, from managed lanes to parking spaces.

The challenges ahead as we work through this pandemic are increasingly far-reaching. That’s why it’s imperative that we strive to think creatively about our entire system of transportation, from project prioritization, to planning, to maintenance, to help cities, states and the nation emerge from current health and economic woes stronger than before.