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Major meeting explores transportation’s economic impact

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Put the traveler first, position transportation to enhance your county's economic development goal

Counties were well represented at this year’s Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, which attracted more than 13,000 transportation professionals from around the world and included more than 5,000 presentations covering all transportation modes. Participants ranged from county commissioners and engineers to federal and state departments of transportation officials, and there were several panel sessions that highlighted innovative county projects which spurred many thoughtful local government-focused questions during post-panel discussions.

The meeting, held last month in Washington, D.C., sported a Transportation: Moving the Economy of the Future theme and spotlighted three hot topics areas: transformational technologies, resilience and sustainability and transportation and public health.

Throughout the weeklong meeting, NACo staff attended many sessions. Here are a few of the messages that stood out from those sessions:


Plan holistically: put the traveler first rather than transportation assets

Mobility on Demand (MOD) is a traveler-centric guide to decision-making that focuses on making multi-modal transportation available to all by using technology and strategic partnerships. It looks at improving the traveler’s “whole trip” from door-to-door.

 Several local governments presented on their work in this area at the meeting. Some of the questions they are tackling include: How can a person without a smart phone or credit card account access a transportation network company’s services (TNCs) such as Uber or Lyft? How can a wheelchair-bound individual access a TNC?

Along this theme of equitable access, one presenter also expressed the need for local governments to expand their view of affordable housing to include affordable transportation — the cost of getting from affordable housing to major job centers and other opportunities — since affordable transportation plays a role in an individual’s mobility and cost of living. Mobility is important to a robust economy as economies don’t happen without mobile people.


Analyze how transportation can help your county meet its economic development goal

Transportation is a key component of economic development from the movement of people to the movement of goods. In multiple sessions throughout the meeting, the role of transportation in supply chain management became a common point of discussion.

Panelists discussed the infrastructure needed to move goods from ocean port to inland port to distribution center to destination in the most safe and efficient manner — both during regular operations and during a disaster event.

During regular operations, one of the biggest challenges that local and state governments face is congestion. Two ways to address congestion were discussed during the meeting: the incorporation of intelligent transportation system technology to expedite lanes movement and better communicate delays with drivers; and the development of inland ports to divert the flow of goods from highways onto railways.


Build a resilient transportation system

Supply chains are often disrupted for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks following a disaster event. Business continuity planning — especially with regard to supply chains — is crucial to community resilience. Counties need to have plans in place for keeping an uninterrupted flow of goods and food during disaster recovery even when key roadways or railways are impassable or ports are offline.

Do you know where your local supply chains originate for key goods (i.e. fuel and food)? Do you know how those goods are being transported into your community?  Do you know how e-commerce has affected the availability of goods your community has on hand (i.e. have local stores that provide essentials closed)? 

As was often emphasized during the meeting’s resilience-themed sessions, 60 percent of all businesses that experience a catastrophic loss fail within the first four years following a major disaster. Counties need to have plans in place for how their transportation networks can support local businesses and residents before, during and after a disaster situation.


Begin planning with emerging transportation technologies in mind

Emerging transportation technologies are already impacting transportation systems. It is important for counties to understand how these technologies might be affecting their roadways now and how they might affect them in the future.

A few of the types of technologies discussed included TNCs, connected vehicles (CVs), autonomous vehicles (AVs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — better known as drones — intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and mobile applications. Discussions primarily revolved around impacts, opportunities, access, equity, governance and legal liability, and focused on driving change through data, cost savings and creative revenue streams, and by pushing innovative policies.

Overall, with the rapid development of technologies in the marketplace and the historically slow nature of government, counties need to start positioning themselves to be able to take advantage of these impending opportunities. One panelist discussed a recently conducted study in which the participating local government identified UAVs, Internet of Things infrastructure and solar panels as the top technologies they would like to pursue in the next five years.

Lastly, as with any topic area, it is important to outline performance measures at the start of any planning process; invest in your workforce; and remember that data and numbers never tell the whole story but are important to help make your case.

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