Transportation & Mobility
Highlights and analyses of remarks made by 2015 Smart Growth Summit speakers Anthony Foxx, Chuck Mahron and Bridget Massengale regarding transportation planning for the 21st century.
Transportation & Mobility
For the past couple of years, traffic congestion in Baton Rouge has been making headlines on a regular basis as commuters, employers and residents become increasingly frustrated by daily gridlock. Statewide, Louisiana is facing a $12B backlog of maintenance needs – this staggering number doesn’t even include the high-dollar megaprojects intended to provide congestion relief. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly 1/3 of Louisiana’s bridges have been classified as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete – and despite the fact that Louisiana is fourth in the nation for square feet of bridge deck, we rank in the bottom third for receiving federal funding for bridge maintenance, repair and replacement.
On top of all this, the effects of climate change will increasingly add to repair and maintenance needs. As stated in Beyond Traffic 2045, U.S. DOT’s analysis of current trends and projected needs, “the effects of climate change will include global mean sea level rise, temperature increases and intense storm events, all of which will impact highways, bridges, public transportation, coastal ports and waterways.” Louisiana’s geography essentially guarantees that our state will experience these deleterious effects sooner and more significantly than most others. The litany of challenges is overwhelming – how do we turn the tide? How do we get ahead of our transportation needs and position ourselves to address transportation issues proactively in the future?
An infusion of new funding is not the only answer, but it is certainly a significant part of the solution. Based on CRISIS’s analysis of 2014 numbers, Louisiana’s Transportation Trust Fund – the state’s primary source for transportation spending funded by the state gas tax – held $685.6M. Of that amount, $551.3M – more than 80% – was allocated to things other than infrastructure, such as DOTD operations, State Police operations, and debt service for the TIMED program, leaving less than 20% for actual infrastructure projects. The DOTD budget for 2016-17 forecasts only $582.7M to be deposited into the Transportation Trust Fund, meaning we will have even fewer dollars for infrastructure unless new revenues are secured. Louisiana residents pay one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation, but that doesn’t mean that taxpayers are saving money. Businesses and individuals pay the price of congestion and poor road conditions in Louisiana -- $408 per motorist, per year, according to U.S. DOT. Investing that same amount into transportation network improvements would increase our spending power by more than 10 times annually.
However, it's not just about money. We can’t build our way out of congestion. The dynamics of roadway expansion and sprawling land use patterns have proven that the relief provided is temporary. As Bridgett Massengale, Executive Director of Chattanooga’s THRIVE 2055 explained, “things like a bypass seem like an easy solution, but they quickly induce growth and more congestion.” In the Chattanooga region, the alternative has been “looking at different ways to move people and product, seeking multi-modal solutions that add choices,” and a “focus on accessing and protecting existing assets such as waterways and rail” – all of which Chattanooga residents have found “much more palatable than billions of dollars in infrastructure.”
Even the most optimistic estimates for new revenues in Louisiana won’t cover all existing needs and projected demands. In his Summit presentation, Chuck Marohn, CEO of Strong Towns, described intractable challenges facing other states and metros that resonate heavily with our own budget concerns. It's a national problem, and as Marohn cannily demonstrates in his presentation, the math just doesn’t work. Budgets at all levels are insufficient to meet maintenance needs, let alone urgent demands for added capacity. The gap is only growing and the magnitude of tax increases that would be required to close it simply isn’t feasible.
Marohn warns us that if conventional models of development continue, the infrastructure questions are “only going to get harder.” Marohn describes the prevailing approach to development as a “ponzi scheme” – one that does not account for the long-term expenses associated with maintaining roads and other infrastructure built to accommodate sprawl and low-density development patterns. The cost to repair and eventually replace these infrastructure components will peak at approximately the same time that the homes and commercial spaces served have lost a significant amount of their value and are thus no longer generating anywhere near the amount of tax revenue needed to cover costs.
In addition to being financially unsustainable, we also know that the current template for transportation investment no longer reflects contemporary preferences, nor does it adequately accommodate South Louisiana's geographic context. As Anthony Foxx and many others have noted, large segments of the population – most notably millennials and baby boomers – are seeking alternatives to car ownership and car-centric places. Americans are increasingly expressing preference for access to quality transit and walkable communities that don’t require car ownership to reach daily destinations. And particularly in south Louisiana, we need alternative evacuation routes and modes - perhaps one of the most poignant lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Multi-pronged, well-coordinated transportation and land use strategies will be required to address these complexities. While the right path forward has not yet been determined, one thing is clear: we cannot keep doing more of the same. We don’t just need more money to address our traffic problems – we need a new approach.
At the Summit, Dennis Smith, Executive Director of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), described how he worked with community partners to both raise revenue and develop a modernized approach to transportation spending. Their efforts resulted in dramatic reductions to the congestion index in the Phoenix area. Smith’s presentation included a depiction of the “mobility tool box” his team developed. He explained how those contents have changed over time to incorporate new technologies, data sources and management techniques along with transit, ride share, new modes and private sector services. His point? Transportation planning and investment strategies must evolve to adapt to changing markets and circumstances.
Bridget Massengale talked about how the transportation conversation has been re-framed in the Chattanooga region, reminding us that transportation is not an end unto itself – it is a means to healthy economic development and quality of life. To that end, THRIVE 2055 has oriented its transportation goals and success measures to people – to “enable individuals to spend more time at their destinations and less time in traffic.” As Massengale, Foxx and others noted, transportation is not about how many vehicles can be moved from point A to point B – it’s about enabling people to work, play and live, and enabling businesses to attract talent, move products and access profitable markets. Anthony Foxx encouraged us to think about our transportation investments accordingly:
Governor John Bel Edwards has publically recognized the dire needs of Louisiana’s transportation infrastructure as a priority for his administration. He has also articulated support for strategic multi-modal investment that will improve connectivity and provide more mobility choices for residents. Along with newly appointed DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, Governor Edwards has the opportunity to transform the transportation status quo in Louisiana. To do so, investment of limited transportation dollars must be supported by policies that prioritize people and ensure the greatest return of community benefit. Our transportation investment strategy should also help build resilience by adapting to changes in demographics, technology, economics and environment.
The success of the state is closely linked to the success of these efforts. Indeed, the quality and inclusiveness of Louisiana’s long-term economic development will depend on our ability to provide residents and businesses with a robust multi-modal transportation network that not only moves cars and trucks efficiently, but also includes viable options for walking, biking and transit.