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Chandler Duncan

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Changes in the administration, debates in Washington, and  ongoing developments in technology, climate change and infrastructure costs make it harder than ever to undertake meaningful transportation plans, corridor studies and prioritize public investments.

 

Choosing between different mixes of long-term transportation infrastructure investments for such an uncertain future is a bit like trying to walk ashore in a rising tide. As soon as you find your path, it disappears! 

The cost of over-build on an asset or transportation system can have life cycle costs that jeopardize an agency’s ability to respond to new challenges. However the societal costs of under-build in terms of safety, congestion and environmental loss can be even more taxing. It is time for transportation planners and engineers to consider the implications of different economic trajectories when assessing future traffic volumes and investment needs. 

What if energy prices (including motor fuel) rise at triple the price currently anticipated? What if foreign trade policies or changes in exchange rates significantly alter the purchasing power of the US dollar and the sourcing of American freight? What if the economy faces another major recession, or changes in trade volumes overwhelm the capacity of US ports? Changes of this type can alter the fundamental assumptions that transportation plans hold about commuting levels, freight traffic, trip patterns, highway and inter-modal capacity and overall system performance.

New tools and data sources are being developed to enable planners to build such considerations into their forecasting and scenario planning. It is increasingly possible to consider aggressive, moderate and conservative estimates of transportation needs, as well as to create investment scenarios that balance and account for different economic possibilities. Incorporating economic possibilities into planning can transform the planning process by:

(1) Adding a level of credibility and relevance to salient economic issues

(2) Responding to tough questions from business stakeholders and elected officials

(3) Enabling plans to account for up-side and down-side risk of proposed projects

(4) Demonstrating how the rationale for prioritization may change with the economy

(5) Clarifying the appropriate overall size of transportation programs

(6) Showing ways to “Right-Size” the life-cycle preservation cost for existing assets

It’s time for a conversation about serious ways to integrate economic uncertainty into the transportation planning and decision making process. 

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To secure funding for projects through the federal TIGER or FASTLANE grant programs, it is critical to demonstrate not only a great project in terms of benefit-cost ratio, but also why the project has economic consequences. Successful TIGER grants for highway or bridge projects have tended to go to applicants who can show community or regional benefits. The new FASTLANE grant program seeks applications that can demonstrate national freight significance and visible economic outcomes.

Rural and freight projects can easily be overlooked if the sources of benefits are not understood to go beyond the regular travel time, reliability and mileage savings. In rural areas, where traffic volumes are often low – a strong accessibility and livability case can be essential to a strong application. In 2014 EDR Group performed the Benefit-Cost analysis for the largest TIGER award given that year – the Kentucky Mountain Parkway Extension. Access to state parks, health care and other amenities supporting livability and quality of life was an important consideration that may have been overlooked without going beyond typical engineering measures. In writing other winning applications, such as the 2013 Rhode Island Apponaug Bypass and the 2015 Mississippi River Bridge in Missouri, we also relied on important considerations about how projects would affect business operations on the ground and community quality of life.

When it comes to freight projects where generalized models of travel demand tell only a sliver of the story, it becomes important to also demonstrate downstream supply chain effects or business productivity, using freight data.

The deadline for the newest round of TIGER Grant applications is April 29, 2016 (see: https://www.transportation.gov/tiger  ). The deadline for the new FASTLANE grant program is April 14, 2016 (see https://www.transportation.gov/fastlanegrants/fastlane-nofo  ). EDR Group provides consulting service support for both grant programs. Read more about these past awards on EDR Group’s web site at: www.edrgroup/TIGER .

To develop a grant application for your project, please contact Chandler Duncan (cduncan@edrgroup.com ), tel +1.617.338.6775 x203

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When funds are short, agencies are often challenged to justify decisions about which projects to do and not to do. One way that agencies address this situation is by conducting cost-benefit analysis, which quantifies all of the potential benefits of projects relative to their costs and compares which investments seem to offer the best outcomes for the money. Agencies may use cost-benefit analysis to justify a particular project (showing its benefits are more than its costs) or to rank projects based on which ones offer the most benefits per dollar spent (often regarded as a ‘prioritization’ process). Using economic methods to compare the benefits of projects can be an extremely useful and powerful tool both for decision making and for explaining choices to stakeholders. However, challenges arise when agencies find that there are “intangible” (or difficult to quantify) outcomes which are known to be important.

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Increasingly, agencies are interested in understanding the benefits of their investments in terms of the "triple bottom line" or (TBL).  TBL is often presented as a new and important type of analysis in transportation and economics.  It is important for planners, economists, and others involved in transportation decisions to understand what this means, and how it relates to the current state of the practice in transportation economics.

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