Reform or Revolution? Preparing Transportation’s institutions for the Future

Reform or Revolution? Preparing Transportation’s institutions for the Future

February 22, 2019  | Paul Lewis

Dramatic changes are underway in transportation and there are myriad discussions and new approaches emerging as a result. However, while there is considerable attention to new technologies and actors, too little attention is given to the institutions—state and local departments, planning organizations, agencies, special authorities—and what change means for transportation governance.

To gain insight into this weighty subject, Eno and the Reason Foundation recently gathered 24 leading academics, current and former agency heads, and other experts for a two-day workshop on institutional reform at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico Conference Center. The goal was to understand the current governance challenges and ways in which the transportation industry may consider ways to rethink it. Governance is not just organizational structure, mission, and directors, but also the way that politics and funding affect institutions’ ability to react, respond, and anticipate changes. A key theme of the Pocantico discussion was the group’s frustration over the inability of existing institutions to consistently do so, often despite a desire to innovate and attract a workforce with knowledge and skills in emerging trends in transportation.

To these ends, the group deliberated ideas for reform and for a full revolution of institutional structures.

Reform might be a mindset transition from capital construction to asset management and using technology to enhance the capacity and safety of our existing infrastructure. It might involve giving metropolitan planning organizations better ability to plan with a more regional scope. Or it might be a better vision from the government for the purpose of the federal program, along with a long-term solution for funding woes. Reform could mean overhauling our workforce and training programs to bring fresh ideas and minds to the industry.

On the other hand, revolution might mean a complete restructuring of the federal programs, phasing out of the Highway Trust Fund, and reorganizing the U.S. DOT along with state and regional planning and programming around a new federal program. It might mean forcing state and local agencies to rethink their mission and structure along operational and capital functions. Revolution might also mean enabling agencies to work on some of the most exciting transportation problems, attracting a top notch workforce for a long career in the transportation field.

The group was quick to point out that many agencies are doing the right things, have innovative leaders, and are working on large, transformation projects. And though these examples might be more the exception than the rule, highlighting their successes and encouraging cross-agency collaboration will be crucial to making progress in the short run.

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