Old Post: On Transportation Investment

[Originally posted December 2005]

I am writing today to exhort you to consider investing in improvements in fixed-route transportation between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, and to offer a framework for analyzing and developing such a proposal. This initiative, if studied and implemented correctly, will accrue numerous gains in both the short and long run.

We begin by defining fixed-route transportation. According to the Federal Transit Administration, such systems operate along prescribed routes according to fixed schedules, and include such means as buses, subways, light rail, and intercity rail.

Next, we must establish the objectives of pursuing such an initiative. I can think of four:

• Economic growth. We can achieve greater output per capita when we have greater efficiency in moving people and cargo, by lowering transport costs, optimizing supply chains, and making labor more mobile. Also, good fixed-route systems can be a key factor in states retaining, attracting, and incubating high-performing businesses.

• Personal productivity. More and better choices for commuters increases their quality of life, saves their precious time, and enables them to be productive during and after their trips to and from work, in comparison to crawling through rush-hour traffic.

• Environmental conservation. Greater reliance on fixed-route systems takes cars off the road, which reduces emissions, fuel consumption, and highway wear and tear. According to the Transportation Research Board, Americans wasted 3.6 billion hours and consumed 5.7 billion gallons of gas idling in highway traffic in 2004.

• Political gains. In your position, half of the people will complain that you’re spending too much money, and the other half that you’re not accomplishing enough (some will do both). A smart proposal on enhancing fixed-route systems, with its careful cost-benefits analyses and its diverse gains, promises to satisfy a broad range of critics.

So how do we make such a proposal? First, I suggest you commission an inventorying and reviewing of existing fixed-route improvement proposals, as well as a request for new proposals. In order to translate desired outcomes into actual outcomes, we must have as many good alternatives to choose from, and take a good look at each of them.

Second, we must continue to gather data quantifying the impact of improving fixed-route systems on economic growth, personal productivity, and environmental conservation. This body of support data will help us conduct a careful analysis of the alternatives. It will also prove useful when we monitor actual work that has been commissioned.

Third, we should initiate a process for determining our selection criteria, a process that should have two elements. Technically, we must engage transportation experts who can help clarify issues of environmental impact, cost-benefit trade-offs, and resource allocation. Politically, we must huddle with advisors to decide our priority of outcomes and geographic areas and to strategize the public relations aspect of this initiative.

Inherent in determining criteria is the need to prioritize between competing outcomes. Our current political and fiscal environment constrains us from pursuing all gains in all places equally. Politically and technically, then, we will have to ask ourselves, the experts, other decision-makers, and the general public what it is that we want. What our fixed-route improvement plan looks like will depend on whether this is a geographic play, an environmental play, or a productivity play. If we are most interested in geography, we should give more weight to proposals that benefit certain areas. If we are most interested in the environment, we should give credence to the principles of the “smart growth” movement. And if we are most interested in productivity, we should look more closely at key lines and modes that can accelerate the movement of people and/or cargo and in doing so improve our chances at catalyzing economic growth.

Ultimately, an investment in improving fixed-route transportation in Pennsylvania can be a beneficial one, for you politically and for the state economically. It is the kind of initiative toward which we can and should apply thorough technical analysis. And it offers a myriad of potential benefits to a diversity of stakeholders. It is because of these many possible gains that we should undertake a careful prioritization of outcomes, which will determine the nature and location of our investments in this work. Whatever we decide, I am confident that such an initiative will be favorable for your political prospects and economically beneficial for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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