A theory of transportation evolution
Conference keynote speaker Cynthia Burbank says the time to evolve is now
There is more than a little urgency in Cynthia Burbank’s voice when you ask her about her thoughts on the evolution of transportation. That is because she is looking down the road into the future, and right now, that road is foggy at best.
“I am very concerned about the trends and conditions of transportation in this country as a whole,” said Burbank, a vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff and former Federal Highway Administration associate administrator with 32 years experience working for FHWA and U.S. DOT. Burbank cites a myriad of forces that are working against the status quo of the U.S. transportation system. She is slated to give the keynote address at the Maine Transportation Conference, Thursday, December 5 in Augusta.
Some of those conditions Burbank defines as “forces from within” – aging infrastructure, changing demographics and the decline in federal revenues.
Others are “forces from without” – strained state and local revenue streams and an aging workforce. And, of course, there is the biggest force of all, the public’s general lack of concern.
“Transportation is just not in the top tier of public concern, it’s lodged somewhere in the public mind behind the economy, the condition of our education system and health care,” said Burbank. She noted that fighting all of those forces at once will take an enormous effort to build and maintain the transportation system of the future, but it must be done.
“It’s why transportation has to change and there is no easy solution.”
Burbank expects that the solutions will come from a variety of sources. Primarily, state and federal transportation officials will need to become better and more efficient in how they deliver transportation to the public and embrace evolving ideas such as “smart growth” and “complete streets.”
“And we need to reform our system of funding transportation. We need to diversify our revenue portfolio with things like user-based fees, public-private partnerships and tolls where there is sufficient traffic to justify them,” she said. “We’ve been too reliant on the gas tax, and while I don’t think it will be going away, it isn’t enough any more.”
Burbank also believes there are some untraditional approaches that should be explored as we grapple with the future of transportation, particularly with a dearth of affordable transportation options for an aging population. Burbank grew up in Vermont and has a noticeable soft spot for states like Maine with great rural expanses and the challenge of meeting transportation needs of a rural population. She said that for much of Maine and Vermont, typical solutions like transit – rail or bus – don’t make sense. But a ridesharing network connected by a rideshare app could make sense. (In the interest of full disclosure, Burbank noted that she is a vice president of an international non-profit organization with the goal of expanding the use of ridesharing to 20 percent of all commuter travel.)
“I grew up in northern Vermont and there are many similarities between my home state and Maine. I worry about the sustainability of transportation in rural areas, especially for aging residents because transit doesn’t work very well in rural settings. There’s not the critical mass. But integrating ridesharing as a feeder to transit systems, that could be effective.”
Ultimately, Burbank believes that technology will be key to a brighter future, helping states keep bridges inspected and roads clear of snow and ice more efficiently.
She also mentioned work her firm has been involved with using technology to collect and analyze winter weather data and help DOTs reduce their reliance on chemical deicing and other labor saving devices that can help states do more with less.
“There are sensors you can build into a bridge that can give you a better snapshot of the stresses on a bridge than a traditional visual inspection,” said Burbank. “Technology can help us be more efficient and identify maintenance issues. That’s something we will need in our efficiency tool kit.”
Still she is quick to note that no matter how much evolves in the field, one thing is sure to remain the same. “After 35 years working in transportation, I don’t see roads going away. Roads and bridges, they are the backbone of our transportation system and that is not going to change.”