How realistic are our expectations for the next Surface Transportation Bill?


Let the food fight begin. Now that the midterm elections are behind us and the 2016 presidential race is starting to take form, the discussion about how the Surface Transportation Act will be renewed is beginning to heat up. There are two kinds of adoption procedure that I have studied: the one I learned in college and the one I learned in DC over the past several decades. They are not very alike.

The actual procedure is more like a giant food fight, involving thousands of participants, from local agencies and companies, to national organizations, to Congressional staff, to the members of Congress themselves, not to mention the Executive Branch. It’s a miracle that they ever pass anything – but they always do, eventually. This column is my modest way of suggesting a few things that ought to be included in the Act.

The first fight is always about funding and while I have always been a fan of user pays and hence an increase in the gas tax, my opinion has shifted. The fact that it’s politically impossible is one factor, but the other is a fairness argument. With the growth of CAFE standards, hybrids and EVs, a gas tax will no longer assess damages fairly. As a result, the alternative involving mileage-based user fees is gaining credibility.

There are numerous experiments at the state level, and combined with the announcement of rule-making to install DSRC radios in every car from 2017, the basis of a widespread usage-charging system will be in place. All Congress needs to do is nothing, which is their strong suit. The states, along with their corporate partners, will develop the most effective ways to charge for city, rural and toll driving.

My next concern is the ‘Watergate question’: “What did you know and when did you know it?” Enormous amounts of data is now being made available in toll, highway and transit systems, due to low-cost transmission and storage. Coming to the fore are private companies offering analytics and predictive analytics to combine disparate databases and provide management with new tools to operate more efficiently. Congress can encourage this trend with a continued emphasis on performance measurement.

My final thought for this column is a new question: “What did you pay and how did you pay it?” The current Surface Transportation Bill has a requirement that toll systems achieve interoperability by 2016, a goal that won’t be achieved. As Congress looks to the next Bill, they should think more broadly. Instead of just toll interoperability, how about transportation interoperability? Why not one account for all paid transportation services, with information on all the unpaid services? It would be possible to provide such a service to customers with benefits to them, to operators and to the entire region. Congress could expand its vision and provide direction to the entire industry. Wouldn’t that be something?

Larry Yermack is strategic advisor to Cubic Transportation Systems, USA.

Illustration: Ian Parratt,

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