Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hanging Out at MTI Transportation Finance Summit 2015

The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) holds frequent conclaves at the Commonwealth Club of California.  I have attended several of their events, so of course I had to attend this month's Transportation Finance Summit.  Checking CalTrans for transportation financing data matters for engineers and urban planners who must spend tax dollars wisely.

The keynote speaker described the enormous backlog in the state's highway maintenance schedule.  County governments have an even larger backlog for local road maintenance.  I do not believe the state should play any role in funding or controlling local road development.  It is uneconomical to commit state funds to streets in municipalities that are not economically viable.  Vallejo, Stockton, and other places have overbuilt their suburbs.  Overgrown towns will eventually unbuild what they cannot sustain, just like Detroit.  Urban planning drives transit policy.  Too much uncontrolled growth gets us roads and bridges to uninhabited areas.

The latest MTI survey of public attitudes toward transit funding reveals nuances that policymakers should recognize.  The conventional wisdom that transportation taxes are unpopular breaks down as the public entertains options that commit funds to wise use.  Variations on specific uses of revenues get progressively higher support if policymakers address pollution, modern tech, and safety.

The expert panel revealed much about policy planning iterations.  Inflation-linked gas taxes may work but they are not a complete solution for fully funding road maintenance as gasoline use declines over the long term.  Big Data from in-car solutions offers a trove of insights into how daily car habits impact road use.  I think industry will easily share that data with regulators and drivers won't object.  The California Transportation Commission has a voice in the process if citizens want to air their privacy concerns about shared data.

The rural California counties that are too poor to raise revenue and too sparsely populated for efficient mass transit have unique planning challenges.  The obvious policy default is to orient their economies toward agriculture and encourage high residential density around a core that has exactly one rail link to the rest of the state.  Our ancestors had the answers generations ago, when rural folk did not expect to have urban lifestyles.

Sales taxes typically support local transit funding, without user fees that assess those who more heavily use infrastructure.  The panelists note that government planners are willing to explore assessments on ton-miles, vehicle weight, axle weight, and other metrics that require heavier vehicles to contribute more revenue for their extra burden on highway upkeep.  If axle count is in play, then I say hybrid cars are also in play for special assessments because their drive trains are heavier than internal combustion engines.

I had way more fun than most laypeople at this Transportation Finance Summit.  One participant even gave me some hints about supporting the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academy of Sciences.  I have subscribed to the TRB's email feed for years.  The board could benefit from finance types like me who contribute expertise on cost estimates and revenue options for a given policy mix.  I might just pay them a visit the next time I'm in Washington, DC.