Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Paving the way: academics, government and industry convene at DU for transportation summit

Faced with increasing demand for goods, congested and crumbling roads and bridges and railroads stretched to capacity, transportation leaders and policy makers descended on the University of Denver in late May in the quest for a sustainable transportation future.

“Beyond the Crossroads,” a two-day conference hosted by the National Center for Intermodal Transportation was billed as what organizers hope will become an annual  discussion on transportation policy and regulation.

Any answers, said Joelle Anne Schmitz, must involve collaboration and communication among three key players: academics, industry and government. All three must have input to devise a workable solution, she said.

“2009 is quite obviously a seminal year for our transportation future,” Schmitz said in her opening remarks. “Our unity is sustained by the free movement of people, goods and thought, so in this large country of big ideas, transportation remains as paramount as our own liberty.”

Schmitz, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, said traffic congestion is costing taxpayers over $200 billion a year. Drivers are spending over 40 hours a year in traffic on roads that have seen use increase 150 percent in the past 25 years while road construction can no longer keep pace.  A world of finite assets requires us to consider alternative modes of transportation to alleviate congestion.

Problems may be traced back to the era prior to the 1970s  when excessive regulation had swung the system out of balance, she said.  Subsequently the transport sector afforded modern economics its most beneficial experiment, the partial deregulation of highly capital intensive industries, which proved an unparalleled success, now emulated internationally.

Government leaders crafting policy must balance industry needs with input from academics to maintain a reasonable, sustainable solution, she said. The current economic downturn may turn out to provide the motivation policymakers need to consider new modalities and make important changes, she said.

”Absent the [economic] crisis, we may have foregone the enhanced opportunity to reassess and proactively determine our transportation future”, she said.

Noting the critical timeframe as the federal government mulls new surface transportation authorizations this year, former U.S. Department of Transportation deputy secretary Mortimer Downey agreed to the need for creative out of the box thinking and said current fuel taxes cannot keep up with transportation infrastructure demands.

Government policies, he said, haven’t kept pace with changing times. While the period from 1894 to 1991 was all about building roads, the past 20 years have seen new challenges, including climate change, a booming U.S. population and emerging new “megaregions,” including the Colorado Front Range. New policies must take into account new realities, he said.

“What we have now isn’t working. It’s not even working as well as it had in the past,” he said. “We really have to address the fact that the future 50 years we are designing this for are not a carbon copy of the past 50 years.”

The National Center for Intermodal Transportation hosted the conference with the DU Intermodal Transportation Institute, the Mountain Plains Consortium, the Nick J. Rahall Institute and the Mineta Transportation Institute. In coming months, conference leaders will seek to build on the presentations, panel discussions and consensus-building exercises and create a policy recommendation for government agencies and committees looking for transportation solutions through the publication and distribution of a white paper and a monograph

It’s time, Downey said, to build an “action agenda” for transportation.

“This is not business as usual,” he said.

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