In 2050, travel will be so much easier, cheaper, and safer.

Accidents are rare thanks to connected vehicles. Traffic signals that automatically adjust to optimize flow eliminate congestion. If you don’t have a car, a service delivers an autonomous vehicle to your door. Instead of filling up at a pump, you power up at an electric charging station. Finding parking is easy because mobile apps identify empty spots.

The public’s imagination has been fired up with media coverage of intelligent transportation scenarios like these. But while engineers can design such systems, public agencies are going to need a lot of money to make them reality by 2050.

Symposium explores answers
Representatives from transportation agencies at all government levels gathered in Evanston, Ill., on May 23 to address that challenge. Using a new Northwestern University Transportation Center study as a starting point, they asked: How can we inspire people to think about infrastructure on a big scale, to break down barriers, and to imagine the strategies needed to realize efficient infrastructure?

City Streets 34 Years from Now

· Infrastructure assets are decentralized and integrate with natural ecosystems.
· Energy is harvested from renewable sources and transmitted along smart grids.
· Vehicles with plug-in electric motors and regenerative braking are smaller, lighter, and consume less fossil fuel.
· Charging stations replace gas stations.
· Public space dedicated to cars is drastically reduced in favor of walking, bicycling, and mass transit.
· Dense urban areas become ecologically regenerative, economically vibrant, and socially equitable.

Supported by a grant from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the center looked at what needs to be done over the next 34 years to accommodate emerging technologies.

According to Mobility 2050, “There’s a disconnect in understanding the link between investment and daily experiences – getting to work and the grocery store, finding the package ordered online yesterday at the doorstep today – and the broader effect that efficient transportation has on competitiveness, employment, and income.”

1. Forget what (hasn’t) worked
Illinois DOT Secretary Randall Blankenhorn, Kennametal Inc. CEO Ron DeFeo, Husco International Inc. CEO Austin Ramirez, and Northwestern University Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Joseph Schofer agreed that appeals to increase infrastructure funding have, for the most part, failed.

“Finding the resources is critical no matter what technology’s like in the next 35 years,” Schofer said. “The fundamental question is how to get the money to make this work and how to craft a message that helps you get that money.”

“We need to think of roads like we think of utilities,” said Blankenhorn. “We need to make the benefits more personal.”

2. Don’t overpromise and underdeliver
It’s easier to convince people to accept higher taxes, tolls, and/or mileage-based user fees if monies are dedicated to solving specific problems or building facilities that people want.

Three Potential Futures

Over almost 170 pages, Mobility 2050 frames transportation’s future based on three goals.

· Business as usual: transportation funding and investment remains at current levels
· Sustainable and resilient cities: a national effort combining public policies and market forces to encourage reinvestment
· Competitive success: a market-driven path that prioritizes economic gain over long-term sustainability.

Business as usual is undesirable because the current system is largely underfunded and deteriorating. Sustainability would be the approach most valued by environmentalists; those interested in spurring economic development would value the competitive success scenario.

The future will most likely incorporate some static policies and values with major efforts to achieve sustainability, both without sacrificing too much economic success.

However, the story needs to be about more than ribbon-cutting.

Underestimating project costs and overestimating benefits leads to mistrust that causes residents to reject funding requests for proposed projects.

Manage expectations by more carefully assessing factors that could increase costs before construction begins, peer review panels, value engineering, sharing cost and performance data, incentive contracting, and public-private partnerships that shift incentives to the private sector. Demonstrate travel time savings, crash reductions, and environmental improvements via objective post-project evaluations.

3. Take a regional approach to a national problem
“If we’re going to achieve big things, we have to do it by collaborating,” said U.S. DOT Deputy Secretary Victor Mendez. “Regional collaboration will get more money to local decision makers.”

Last year, the U.S. DOT asked road users and those who design build, and maintain roads how to develop a transportation network capable of accommodating 70 million more people.

His keynote speech at the symposium highlighted increased safety from autonomous vehicles, the introduction of new technologies across all transportation modes, and the agency’s Smart Cities Challenge.

When the initiative was launched in December 2015, 78 mid-size cities applied for funding to become the first to integrate self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors into their streets and roads. On June 23, the agency announced that the City of Columbus, Ohio, will receive up to $40 million to test ideas.

Mobility 2050 doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it’s good reading for anyone in public works.

Instead of the same old song about how infrastructure’s deteriorating, the 178-page report looks at what transportation could be, gets people thinking beyond their immediate problems, and offers ideas to get buy-in for the projects required to get there.

Click here for the full report.