Report: NY Capital Must Prepare for Transportation Changes

Technological changes in coming years will include more widespread adoption of electric and self-driving vehicles and more use of shared cars, bicycles and e-scooters, according to a new report.

by Stephen Williams, The Daily Gazette / March 10, 2020
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone

(TNS) — The New York state Capital Region needs to prepare for revolutionary changes in transportation technology while also concentrating on the costly business of rehabilitating or replacing aging highways and other infrastructure, according to a newly drafted 30-year regional transportation spending plan.

The technological changes in coming years will include more widespread adoption of electric and self-driving vehicles and more use of shared cars, bicycles and e-scooters -- and planners need to consider what those changes mean, according to the draft New Visions 2050 report released by the Capital District Transportation Committee.

At the same time, keeping up with maintaining and replacing aging roads and bridges ideally will require around $300 million more per year than the region has been spending in transportation infrastructure, the report finds.

"Planning the Capital Region's transportation system for the year 2050 presents vast opportunities and real challenges," said Michael V. Franchini, CDTC's executive director.

The CDTC, based in Colonie, oversees federal transportation funding for the core counties of the Capital Region: Albany, Saratoga, Schenectady and Rensselaer. The draft report is a 30-year plan that outlines investment principles, planning strategies, and budget priorities, without much discussion of specific projects.

The New Visions 2050 plan, if adopted, would replace the current planning document, New Visions 2040, which was adopted in 2015, and is similar to the new plan in its larger goals.

"Rapidly changing technology, an aging population, a climate in crisis, and a changing economy makes the future more uncertain than ever before. The last decade was the warmest on record and transportation continues to be the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, a driver of climate change," said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, chairwoman of the CDTC. "At the same time, our country and region are facing deepening inequality, and communities must make investments that correct past oversights, while creating new opportunities that make the region more sustainable."

While containing little discussion of specific projects, the report does call for completion of further studies looking at what could be the most transformational construction project that  Albany has seen since the city's interstates were completed in the 1970s -- reconfiguring Interstate 787 to open more of downtown Albany to the Hudson River waterfront.

The coming changes in transportation technology will have unpredictable consequences, according to the report.

"We are on the cusp of three revolutions in transportation: vehicle electrification, automation, and widespread shared mobility. These revolutions will fundamentally change transportation around the world and here in the Capital Region, separately, and together. Together, the positive and negative aspects of each revolution will interact in impossible to predict ways," the draft states.

While some in the public are hesitant about self-driving vehicles, there are advocates have found their adoption has been frustratingly slow. The report notes that new vehicles are slowly incorporating some autonomous-driving features, and more will be coming.

"The timeline for deployment of a vehicle that can travel without a driver is uncertain, but new vehicles are beginning to include features like adaptive cruise control, lane-centering and automated braking," the report states. "A system dominated by self-driving cars by the year 2050 is not improbable."

Such changes might seem new and exciting, but the report also warns that the period of rapid transportation growth and development in the mid-20th century -- when government was spending twice as much on transportation infrastructure as it is now -- led to construction of high-capacity roads and bridges that are now approaching the end of their lifespans. Their estimated total replacement value, in the county counties alone, is $30 billion.

"Preserving this system of roads built decades ago so that they last for generations, while meeting changing needs, remains a top priority for all levels of government," the report says.

But the draft warns about the uncertainty of future federal transportation funding -- including the potential for funding cuts.

Revenue from the federal gas tax, the primary funding source for the Highway Trust Fund, is billions of dollars short of keeping up with the cost of maintaining transportation systems -- a situation widely discussed in transportation planning circles, but a situation Congress has yet to successfully address.

The federal gas tax has become a less reliable revenue source as more people drive high-gas-mileage or electric vehicles, and are therefore paying less gas tax. The tax of 18.4-cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4-cents on diesel hasn't changed since 1993, when gas was averaging $1.11 per gallon.

The current federal transportation funding bill, the $305 billion five-year FAST Act, expires in September.

The total cost of maintaining and replacing the Capital Region's transportation infrastructure over the next 30 years is expected to average $775 million per year -- and it will take innovative ideas to come up with that much money. Spending less will have consequences, the report warns.

"CDTC’s budget analysis asserts that the 2050 Plan is fiscally balanced over time -- but only if public funding increases regularly over the upcoming decades as it has done in the past," the report says. "A reduced level of revenues would lead to serious declines in physical and service conditions, making even the most modest improvements difficult to accomplish."

The $775 million annually is nearly twice as much as the average annual investment in the region of $435 million between 2016 and 2021. The figures include state and local government funding, as well as federal transportation dollars.

Public comment on the draft will be taken through April 30, which will be followed by any revisions and an anticipated second round of public comments in June and July. Residents, businesses and others who want to participate can complete an online survey or offer to host a community meeting by visiting www.cdtcmpo.org/transportation-plans/nv2050, emailing [email protected], or by calling 518-458-2161.

©2020 The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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