Blog Innovation NewsBrief: Notes from the Annual TRB Meeting

The annual meetings of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) have always been a reliable barometer of the key transportation issues of the day as seen by the transportation community. This year’s meeting–which attracted 10,100 participants and featured over 500 technical sessions and workshops–was no exception. What follows are some impressions from the conference, after listening to some 60 presentations and holding informal conversations with a number of conference speakers and other participants during the 4-day meeting, January 10-13.
The overall impression was one of a pervasive climate of uncertainty about the future. Conference sessions and informal conversations were full of speculations concerning the status of the surface transportation reauthorization, the potential solutions to the funding dilemma, the fate of the climate change legislation, the future direction of the federal high-speed rail program and the impact of the upcoming midterm elections on pending legislation, notably the surface transportation reauthorization and the climate change bill. The outcome of the second job stimulus bill was also a subject of much speculation. The bill, which already has been approved by the House and now awaits action in the Senate, would inject substantial interim funds into the surface transportation program and extend the surface transportation authorization through Sept. 30, 2010. The $154 billion measure would allocate $36.7 billion for highways, transit and Amtrak, credit the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) with $19.5 billion in foregone interest payments and allow the Trust Fund to accrue interest in the future. But, as one congressional source attending the TRB Conference told us, the Senate prospects for the deficit-funded jobs bill appear uncertain.
Senate opponents claim there is plenty of stimulus money still in the pipeline and the bill’s requirement to spend the money within 90 days imposes an unrealistic deadline given the lengthy contracting process involved in infrastructure procurement. Additionally, Senate opponents may be expected to argue that the law establishing TARP requires unspent and repaid funds to be used to pay down the soaring national debt. The prospect of another vote to raise the debt ceiling might further discourage the Senate from redirecting the TARP money.
Secretary LaHood’s address at the TRB Annual Luncheon, announcing revised criteria for New Starts funding, received a generally positive reception from the TRB audience. Under the new policy, proposals for new rail transit projects will be judged by a broader range of factors than in the past. In addition to cost-effectiveness, the criteria will include economic and environmental benefits, land use impact and “livability.” One beneficial effect of the revamped policy should be a wider consideration of streetcars. This was first made possible several years ago when the Bush Administration made streetcars eligible for federal funding under its “Very Small Starts” category (Interim Guidance on Small Starts, July 26, 2006.) As many as 40 U.S. cities are in various stages of considering or planning streetcar projects according to a survey conducted by the Community Streetcar Coalition. As we observed in an earlier NewsBrief, “just as 30 years ago a less costly light rail transit LRT technology began to replace expensive heavy rail systems, so today, streetcars are offering to medium-size cities a more affordable fixed-guideway alternative to light rail systems.” (The Streetcar Makes a Comeback, Innovation NewsBriefs, September 2006.)

The announcement by U.S. DOT’s Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz at the annual U.S. DOT Leadership session that the Department will be developing its own reauthorization proposal came as welcome news. We have always suspected that the Administration’s proposal to defer action on the reauthorization until Spring of 2011 was motivated in no small measure by a desire to take a more active role in shaping the future multi-year transportation legislation. As its stands now, the Administration has had virtually no input into the bill authored by Rep. James Oberstar’s House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Kienitz, who will assume personal responsibility for this effort, offered few hints as to the direction of DOT’s thinking other than stating that (1) the federal role in transportation should be focused on truly national needs; (2) the bill must offer a vision “that is sufficiently compelling to merit public support;” (3) the bill will be guided by the goals of safety, system preservation, economic growth, “livability” and environmental sustainability; and (4) finding the money to pay for the program will be the key challenge. What he did not address was the time frame for the authorization bill. The vast majority of participants we have talked to, speculated that the bill would not come up for congressional consideration until 2011. A few skeptics thought that even that time frame might turn out to be too optimistic given the political hurdles to raising the gas tax in the next, probably more tax-averse, Congress.
The future of climate change legislation remains in doubt. Chances of enacting tough greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions during this session of Congress appear “close to zero” according to John Stoody, aide to Senator Kit Bond (R-MO), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Stoody participated in a panel on “Federal Climate Change Legislation and Policies” whose general mood could be described as sober. Several factors could be responsible for the weakening of the prospects for climate change legislation according to observers we sought out after the session. They include growing public skepticism about the reality of global warming; disappointment over the inability of the Copenhagen Summit to reach a binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions; the revelations of ClimateGate casting doubts on the integrity of some climate scientists’ objectivity; opposition of 14 Senate Democrats from coal-dependent states who fear that a cap on GHG emissions would raise energy costs and utility rates; and the impact of the upcoming congressional mid-term elections. Public opinion could also be influenced by critics such as Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copehagen Consensus Center, who argue that after 20 years of getting nowhere, it’s time to take a fresh look at the problem and adopt a different approach. According to Lomborg, the only way to reduce the use of fossil fuels without crippling the world economy is to radically ramp up green energy technologies– to the point where one could increase reliance on them by several orders of magnitude. As Lomberg argues: “Instead of condemning billions of people to continued poverty by trying to make fossil fuels more expensive, we should make green energy cheaper.” (From Copenhagen’s Ashes, a Better Way to Fight Global Warming, The Washington Post, January 15, 2010.)
Perhaps that is why, with the hopes of enacting a comprehensive cap-and-trade bill fading, attention is turning to a stand-alone energy bill as advocated by Sen Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Even confirmed advocates of comprehensive climate change legislation should be willing to admit that an energy bill that would lay a foundation for a technological solution to more efficient green energy would be better than ending up with nothing. Performance measures are receiving increased attention but also are raising some questions. The need to establish a set of targets to guide the federal transportation program and to use a set of performance measures to judge its success has been widely accepted, but implementing a performance-based system has raised a contentious issue: How should the standards be set and who should set them?
A debate at the TRB meeting disclosed a familiar split between advocates of federal versus state prerogative. For Pete Rahn, director of Missouri’s Department of Transportation, who spoke at a session on “Performance-Based Reauthorization,” there was no doubt as to who should be in charge. “We don’t envision a process in which the U.S. Secretary of Transportation would impose uniform nationwide performance targets on the states,” he said. “That function, belongs to each individual state.” Federal officials begged to disagree. National goals should be set by the U.S. DOT in collaboration with states, FHWA executive director, Jeff Paniati argued. But he avoided an open conflict by ruling out any strong-armed tactics to force compliance. States which failed to reach the national performance standards, he said, would not lose federal transportation funding.
The TRB meeting was marked by a new emphasis on “livability.” “Livability” was the subject of a well-attended half-day workshop on “Livability, Sustainability and Congestion Pricing,” and it was chosen as one of the themes of the next Annual TRB Meeting. The term “livability” owes its new popularity to the rhetoric emanating from the U.S. DOT, HUD and EPA which have made “livability” a prominent goal of their respective programs. But the ambiguity of this term has raised some questions which are bound to be debated well beyond the TRB meeting. What is the meaning of “livability” and who decides what is “livable”? For the three federal agencies, “livability” seems to mean denser living patterns, less dependence on the automobile, more walking and less driving. Or, as Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood put it, “livability” means going the entire day without having to get into your car. But these definitions may be too narrow for most people, whose notion of “livability” may include living in a safe neighborhood, having access to good schools, enjoying the privacy of one’s own back yard and the freedom, comfort and flexibility of personal transportation. “Livability” as a euphemism for a federal policy of giving preference to one particular form of development and travel behavior, and ignoring the living and travel preferences of a great majority of Americans, is bound to meet with a cool reception from local officials, the citizenry and the transportation community. The 89th Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board adjourned having demonstrated once again its value as the transportation community’s premiere forum for dialogue, debate and exchange of information.