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Getting Over Our Love Affair with Fossil Fuel: State and local leaders discuss hard work of building toward the future

State, local and community leaders grapple with the hard issues -- and the huge opportunities -- of FutureStructure at San Francisco Summit

by Paul W. Taylor / November 12, 2013
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and Wade Crowfoot, Senior Policy Advisor in the California Governor's Office, speaking at the FutureStructure Summit on Transportation and the Built Environment.

Reducing reliance on fossil fuel, extracting value from public assets and widening the public conversation about our shared future emerged as the three key themes of a day-long discussion in San Francisco at the FutureStructure Summit on Transportation and the Built Environment.

FutureStructure is an initiative of e.Republic, the parent company of Governing and Government Technology, that takes an interdisciplinary, multijurisdictional approach to building communities as great places to live, work and raise a family.

e.Republic CEO Dennis McKenna emphasized the role of human capital and big audacious ideas – or “soft infrastructure” in the vernacular of FutureStructure – as the key to making great places at human scale. We need communities with sustainable infrastructure, education and opportunities for the people who live there. It is not enough to just talk about infrastructure the way we always have, or the Internet of Everything in isolation. The path to the future requires combining concrete, steel, glass and silicon with big ideas by what McKenna calls “engineers of place.”

Dr. Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at the UCLA Institute of the Environment, picked up on the theme by calling for a new multidisciplinary breed of local public servants who are tied to place and collaborate with neighbors organically in places they all care about.

For Pincetl, the use of organic is more than an analogy (but it is a powerful one at that). The UCLA professor says "urban metabolism" is an important way of thinking about cities as system of systems. Consider water. Communities need to recognize that there is no virgin water. Pincetl concedes that waste water may never become potable but certainly can be used more widely by “purple piping” irrigation, a reference to the U.S. protocol of distributing reclaimed water in purple pipes to distinguish from potable and waste water.

Pincetl says that affording the future we want requires blending gray and green infrastructures with an end-to-end view. Her point: The waste stream is a nascent resource and it can no longer be seen as just a liability. There is an asset in there somewhere. She notes that getting to the right answers will hinge on relationships, saying storm water management will require a more active role by private property owners. 

She reminded the audience that the design and function of our communities as they now exist speaks to the triumph of urban dwelling based on a reliance of fossil fuel. Breaking that reliance is a daunting challenge because urban density and the built environment are obstacles to change.

Pincetl says that building the future we want means approaching it with the same urgency that drove the rise of the sanitary city -- making water and waste infrastructure safe -- more than a century ago. She sees futurestructure as an example of "urban acupuncture" that can help heal and increase resiliency of our cities.

Fossil fuel and applied technology also drove the discussion around reducing costs and raising revenues to pay for infrastructure modernization.

In Contra Costa, Calif., Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Transportation Authority, says there are efficiencies to be gained in the use of mobile apps in transportation. He sees huge opportunities in pushing information to people using public roads, ports and transit before they need it, and then helping the authority make better decisions based on what they learn from how and where that data gets used.

Wade Crowfoot, senior policy advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown, noted that bundling in long-term operation and maintenance costs with an infrastructure build or retrofit makes it all the more attractive to private capital.

Kelly Reagan, the city fleet administrator in Columbus, Ohio, says anti-idling measures and idle reduction technologies can help reconcile sometimes-conflicting goals. In his city, the mayor’s green directive puts a priority on energy-efficient vehicles. For its part, the city police department prefers SUVs and other large vehicles. Reagan says idle reduction technology can get closer to what both parties want because it can trim $1.3 million in fuel budget.

On the revenue side of the equation, a pair of Northwest legislators differed on the efficacy of tolling and Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) charges versus the fuel tax. Oregon state Sen. Bruce Starr sees road user taxes as the way to get beyond the fuel tax. Oregon is working with the departments of transportation in the Western states to find ways to efficiently capture road usage data and pass it to the DOTs. The initiative has attracted the attention of 30 technology companies. Starr says dividing the work allows the private sector to do what it does best, and public agencies to play to their strengths too.

Washington state Rep. Ross Hunter wondered aloud about the cost efficiencies of the new methods. He says we need to consider the cost of collection in collecting revenues. Hunter says the cost of tolling and pay-in-motion technologies is approaching 30 percent of what is collected compared to the gas tax, where the cost of collection is one-third of 1 percent. Starr readily conceded that the gas tax is without equal in terms of cost efficiency but reminded the audience that the tax itself is less powerful than it once was because of increased fuel efficiency of modern automobiles and changes in driving habits.

The choices ahead are difficult, and costly. Somebody has to pay for building the infrastructure communities need. Delegates noted repeatedly that the public’s default response is that it – whatever it is – is too expensive. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, a California nonprofit advocacy group for building better cities, says the public does not understand the need for infrastructure investments because they are not part of the conversation in a meaningful way. “We need to personalize the message in ways that it means something to that individual in terms of making a better life for herself and her family in the community in which they live.”

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