What lies ahead

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You can't move goods competitively to markets without a solid transportation system, and if we let those systems decline further, we won't be able to sustain that export-led growth. Bottom line: It's vital to the national economic recovery to have a world-class transportation system." --John Horsley, executive director, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

What's ahead for transportation in 2011? That’s a question on the minds of many in trucking, even as the holidays now loom large.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is one group that’s gone public with what it believes should be the top 10 pressing issues facing the transportation sector in 2011 – and, not surprisingly, the still-unfinished five-year transportation bill heads the list.

"We are urging Congress to write a balanced bill next year that meets the needs of preservation and new capacity, meets the needs of rural and urban America, and meets the needs for highways as well as transit," said John Horsley, AASHTO's executive director. "It's important to remember that for every dollar that we don't spend today to preserve highways, five years from now it will cost us $7. But if we get a bill passed with these elements, we have a shot of meeting the country's needs.”

Even though the trucking community and state transportation officials don’t see eye to eye on everything – and frankly, they shouldn’t, as state DOTs must take a much broader view of how to move both goods and people inside and outside the U.S. – it’s worth taking a look at what AASHTO thinks should be the key topics of discussion next year when talk turns to transportation.

Enacting a long-term transportation bill that will keep America moving. In 2010, there was a lot of talk about the need for a new long-term transportation bill, but in the end, Congress opted for a short-term extension until March 4 of the existing law. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said he would like a new bill ready for consideration in the spring. AASHTO believes short-term extensions can create difficulties for state departments of transportation who must juggle major, multi-year public works projects such as reconstructing bridges or interchanges. In addition, these projects require that states have secure, long-term financing before any contracts can be signed. Thus AASHTO thinks a balanced, long-term and multi-year bill must be passed in 2011.

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Paying for the transportation system the U.S. needs. Although the need to pass a long-term bill is a significant priority for the country, the question often comes back to how the U.S. pays for it at the federal, state and local levels, AASHTO says. Many states are facing severe cutbacks in funding used to match the federal contribution, compounding the overall funding problem. So work is expected to continue on adopting a series of sustainable funding sources for transportation infrastructure; identify state and federal responsibilities for the funding of transportation; and create innovative financing options such as infrastructure banks, public-private partnerships or subsidized bonding programs.

Ensuring Safer Roads. Deaths from traffic accidents dropped significantly in 2010, but so did the number of cars and trucks on the highways. As the economy turns around, keeping our roads safe will be an ongoing challenge. In 2011 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and state DOTs focused will have a chance to join with a national roadway safety effort – Toward Zero Deaths – intended to eliminate roadway fatalities completely. Toward Zero Deaths will be unveiled in 2011, and will take a comprehensive approach that combines aspects of new technology, roadway design, law enforcement, and cultural change to achieve this goal.

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Moving on High-Speed Rail Grants. State DOTs are working closely with railroads, Amtrak, and the Federal Railroad Administration to deliver on $8 billion in investment in high-speed and intercity passenger rail included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the "stimulus bill," as well as another $2.5 billion allocated to state programs in 2010 under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. Whether it is establishing a right-of-way for a new high-speed rail line, improving or expanding an existing intercity passenger rail line, or developing standards for rail cars that will boost American manufacturing, states are building passenger rail aimed at generating more convenient options for travelers.

Bringing modernization and new technologies to our transportation network. Next year could mark the beginning of the era of smart cars, smart roads and smart construction. More "smart cars" on the road will help increase safety for all of us. And with new "whiz-bang" technologies using specialized materials, updated techniques and innovation, road builders and the transportation construction industry will be able to speed-up construction, reduce costs, and increase safety. AASHTO's new "Green Book" – A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets – will be published in early summer. In addition, the next generation of air traffic controls – based on global-positioning satellite technology (GPS) instead of radar – will smooth air travel.

Moving freight to keep the U.S. more competitive in the global economy. Problems such as too-narrow country roads, congested freeways, old, worn-out levees and ports with limited access pose significant challenges to the U.S. economic future. With the widening of the Panama Canal by 2014, ports along the eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico are gearing up to serve larger ships, that, in turn, will cut container shipment time from Asia to the Eastern U.S., while placing new burdens on the existing and aging transportation system. That’s why 2011 should be the year in which the U.S. adopts a national multi-modal freight plan, AASHTO contends.

Increasingly assertive environmental regulations. Under the aegis of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing more stringent rules to control storm water from transportation sources. Other regulations addressing air quality and other transportation-related issues are also expected in the year ahead, adding new challenges and financial pressures on construction, maintenance and preservation. State DOTs are looking closely at their existing programs and many are instituting new practices to address these new challenges.

Social Media Continues to Rock the Transportation World. The Nebraska Department of Roads , for example, maintains its own video page, which includes some pretty slick productions, including this one of recent transportation construction projects set to original guitar licks.

On Ramp from NDOR Communication Video on Vimeo.

Washington State DOT has more than 12,000 Twitter followers. Fifteen states and 24 metropolitan areas along the I-95 Corridor, participate in www.i95travelinfo.net, and are offering speed and congestion information to travelers. Ahead in 2011: more targeted use of social media, with better communication and information being the end result.

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New support systems to bolster renewable and reliable energy sources. With the advent of electric vehicles, charging stations will begin to pop up to allow the driver to connect to the grid where vehicles park—street-side, garage or parking lot—and provide the car's onboard charger with the electricity it needs to refill the battery. As a result, AASHTO is working with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change on a project to integrate plug-in electric vehicles with the U.S. electricity grid. Elsewhere in the transportation sector, opportunities to support energy and climate goals include vehicle technology, alternative fuels, transportation system operation and driver behavior, and reducing travel demand.

Wrapping up Recovery Act projects: what comes next? The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has reimbursed states and local governments almost $16.8 billion for thousands of projects completed under the ARRA. As a result, Wyoming has paid out 94% of its ARRA highway funds, the most of any state. Oklahoma, South Dakota, Iowa, and Vermont have also spent more than 90% of their ARRA money. Twelve other states have spent 80% of their allocations. That leaves two questions to answer, says AASHTO: With no additional funding coming to states for transportation projects, what's ahead for transportation construction businesses and their workers in 2011? And how will state DOTs respond to their backlog of aging road, bridge, and transit projects?

That’s a pretty exhaustive list of top 10 issues, if you ask me: some that the trucking industry will no doubt champion strongly, while others (most notably high speed rail) it probably won’t support at all. It will also be interesting to watch how these issues are addressed by both government and the public as we head into a brand new year.

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And on that note, I’ll be signing off until the dawn of 2011 as well. Please have a safe and joyous holiday season!

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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