Mobility at what price?

August 2007 » Columns
We need a higher level of recognition of the importantance of continued and guaranteed investment in our transportation system.
Robert M. Wright, P.E.

We all know from experience that there are two ways to remove a bandage: the quick and painful option or the slow and careful method. Either way, the end product is the same—the bandage is gone. The amount of pain is the key part of the decision.

Urban Engineers, Inc.
Headquarters: Philadelphia

Number of offices: 10

Total number of employees: 400

Year firm was established: 1960

Total billings for last fiscal year:
$46 million

In much the same way, funding for transportation and highway projects has many options that may be categorized by degree of "pain." As we continually find, there is a very limited amount of funding for the critical need we have for mobility. We have some limited choices as how best to spend the money available, but planning the projects is often an arduous process. This is further complicated by the constraints of transportation budgets.

In the 1950s, highway and transportation engineers were the heroes of the day. President Eisenhower presented the challenge of a nationwide system of superhighways for defense, commerce, and travel; and they responded. Most people welcomed the novelty of the new express highways and enjoyed the enhanced mobility provided by the Interstates.

A generation is defined as a period of between 19 and 22 years. If, for our purposes, we make this 20 years, then the transportation engineers of the 1956-1975 period are the "builder" generation. They built the initial segments of the Interstate system. They wandered into an area in which little science or data was known and, as directed, they built roads.

As the system grew, it became extremely popular, and projections of traffic volumes and patterns were achieved and exceeded long before this was anticipated to happen. Consequently, many of these roads needed to be rebuilt. The 1976-1995 group would then be the "completer" generation—they finished what the builders started, and "tweaked" it as needed to try to make it work better. Through changes in the Highway Trust Fund, they were also able to apply federal funding to non-Interstate projects, to extend benefits to arterials and local roads.

In the current (1996-2015) era, our group could be called the "preservation" generation—we need to continue the rebuilding and fine-tuning. The investment that has been made cannot be allowed to deteriorate, as the transportation systems are vital to our lives. Funds must be redirected toward restoration of the systems and use of technologies such as intelligent transportation systems to enhance capacity when additional lanes cannot be provided, as well as enhanced transit to ease the burden on the highway network where possible. New roadways are often out of the question.

This makes the competition for transportation dollars even more difficult. Increasingly, projects that will restore facilities must be planned to have as little impact as possible. While in the past work could be done any time except peak hours, traffic levels in busy urban areas have grown to restrict lane closures to overnight hours and on weekends. This premium-time work raises construction costs and slows schedules. Firms such as my employer, Urban Engineers, Inc., have looked to the "constructability" of solutions to address the continued tightening of construction windows and constraining of methods. The planning and design effort required to keep the maximum number of lanes open when needed, while still allowing meaningful construction activity, has become paramount for successful projects.

As we continue through this period of restoration, an interesting "twist" has occurred. In my previous position as a local government transportation engineer, solutions to mobility problems have increasingly become less technical and more political. This stresses the importance of mobility. Unfortunately, for some reason it has not translated into an increased recognition of the critical nature of dedicated funding streams when budget time comes around. With federal funds in place for capital construction but not for maintenance, new facilities appear to be lucrative, but we know additional inventory will only increase our maintenance burdens.

Thus, the preservation generation needs some help in a few of the following areas:

  • Political desire—Are we willing to continue to pay increased taxes and other fees to keep the standard of mobility that we have? Are we ready to face both the short-term and long-term disruptions, changes to lifestyle, and other factors that we must endure as the prices for better mobility?
  • Technical desire—Engineering enrollment is down and projections continue that trend, so where is the next generation of highway/transportation engineers that will "lead the charge"?
  • Future desires/considerations—Are we content to change lifestyles in the future if mobility problems cannot be resolved?
  • Financial considerations—Do funding commitments fully represent the importance of mobility?

Mobility is something that we all take for granted. What we need is a higher level of recognition of how important continued and guaranteed investment in our transportation system is, as the system is such a vital part of everyday life.

Robert M. Wright, P.E., is vice president and practice leader of municipal engineering at Urban Engineers, Inc. He can be reached at 215-922-8080 or at via e-mail at rmwright@urbanengineers.com.


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