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Tech Is Forcing State Leaders To Rethink Transportation Departments

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval explores new car tech at CES2018

Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval explores new car tech at CES2018 Mitchel Herckis / Route Fifty

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As technology is celebrated at CES, state transportation leaders huddled to assess its impact on everything from the environment to their departments’ business models.

LAS VEGAS — With transportation technology evolving at a rapid clip, state transportation departments are finding themselves focused on a new set of policy questions that go far beyond how to get people from here to there.

At a hotel in Las Vegas, state transportation leaders from more than 25 states shared some of their key priorities and concerns.

Nevada is seeking to provide charging stations for electric vehicles across the entirety of the state’s highway system, while also looking at how to recruit a skilled technological workforce to fit the changing landscape. California is focused on reducing vehicle emissions to achieve its climate goals. South Dakota came to the summit looking to explore applying some of the emerging technologies to their rural landscape.

A unifying theme among all the participants was that the very nature of transportation was changing rapidly, and their offices would need to change with it.

The revolution in mobility and its ripple effects both inside and outside of government were on full display during the gathering, hosted by the National Governors Association.

A few miles down the road, new technologies were being showcased and announced in the CES2018 convention hall. Many were innovations that will start impacting citizens lives day-to-day in the near future—like connected, autonomous vehicle and transit solutions.

If there was any doubt this technology was something transportation leaders needed to address now, GM announced its intention to start mass producing fully autonomous vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, with hopes of getting them on the road in 2019.

Generally, the mood among state leaders was enthusiasm about the new challenges ahead of their states.

“If you’re in transportation and you’re not completely excited about what we have in front of … all of us right now, I need to talk to you afterwards,” said Carlos Braceras, director of Utah’s Department of Transportation. “The opportunities are just phenomenal. I call this a major inflection point for transportation—and really, I believe, for the country—if we can do this right.”

CES participants get a glimpse of how autonomous vehicles see the world. (Mitchel Herckis / Route Fifty)

The “if we can do this right” seems to be a common and large concern for those in transportation roles. Transportation officials’ excitement for this new world is tempered with an underlying understanding about the potential for a significant impact on citizens and a need to fundamentally rethink how states deliver transportation infrastructure and services.

“Like all the states, we’re trying to adapt,” said Brian Annis, deputy director of the California State Transportation Authority.

Annis said their department recognizes “where some of the technology is going to lead us on good directions on its own” but also acknowledged “areas where we might have a gap, where there might be a role for government to play a larger role in trying to help shape some of these evolutions that are going forward.”

This means some fundamental changes in how things have been done for the past century, and that starts with functions as foundational as planning.

“We have to plan differently,” said Stephanie Pollack, secretary of transportation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “The irony in transportation is we tend to plan 25 years ahead, but it’s because it takes us that long to get things done. And the only thing we know about 25 years from now is it will be nothing like today.”

MassDOT has begun to run all statewide plans through different future scenarios with various potential “drivers of change” influencing how the state builds.

State transportation agencies are also changing the lens through which they see the world. Braceras explained that, traditionally, transportation departments often focused on the driver, who acted as an interpreter of his or her interaction with the built transportation infrastructure.

“That’s changing now. We’re now seeing a dynamic where we’re going to have to have new partnerships, new relationships,” Braceras said, listing out the diverse relationships with automobile manufacturers, technology companies, academics, insurance companies, and others involved in the rapidly evolving policy world.

In addition, transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft are now equally vital stakeholders, and considering the new roles of both those companies and the public sector will be vital if transportation officials are going to get the future right. For instance, Pollack pointed out that data from across several cities showed that rideshare companies were creating worse traffic congestion in inner cities.

Just one corner of the sprawling CES tradeshow floor. (Mitchel Herckis / Route Fifty)

“There may be a future state that’s going to be really great with electrified, autonomous shared vehicles … but the transition from here to there is going to be really messy,” Pollack said.

At the same time, significant opportunities exist to partner with these new companies. Pollack said state transportation agencies need to reevaluate what services they must provide and where they should cede the field to private sector partners who can do it better.

As an example, she pointed to a partnership between the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and ride-booking companies Uber and Lyft to provide paratransit services at a fraction of the cost. That program was a finalist in the Route Fifty Navigator Awards.

More broadly, it was clear that states need to acknowledge that their transportation business model will need to be reassessed. With vehicles becoming more efficient and needing less gasoline, the tax structures that have historically funded transportation is dwindling every year.

There was a great deal of talk about the potential to move to a mileage-based funding mechanism for vehicles, as well as exploring other approaches to funding infrastructure. Officials discussed the need to take into account equity between rural and urban areas, as well as private sector “transportation as a service” providers in addition to individuals.

Whether anyone had the answer to what model would succeed in this brave new world was unclear, but those in the room recognized there would be significant stakes for citizens, states and their economies.

“Those businesses that guess correctly will have a huge advantage and huge opportunities down the road. Those states that guess correctly will have a huge advantage down the road,” said Val Hale, director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

For Pollack in Boston, the answer seemed to at least partially be to focus the mission on people rather than projects.

“For MassDOT, technology is like concrete and asphalt. They are important tools, but they are not the business we’re in; we’re in the people business,” she said. “So when we think about disruption, we are really thinking how can technology help—and in what ways might it disrupt the lives of the people who we are trying to help.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Gov. Sandoval Discusses States as ‘Laboratories’ to Drive the Engines of Innovation