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The Evolution of Transportation + Economic Development: Ten Takeaways from I-TED 2018

ITED_GW Glen Weisbrod Presenting at I-TED 2018

The I-TED Conference on Transportation and Economic Development has now concluded. Judging by the reaction of all the participants with whom I’ve spoken, it was a tremendous success.  Here are some personal observations.

  1. The field of Transportation and Economic Development has really matured.  I’ve been going to this conference series since they started in 1989, and we’ve come a long way since then.  A dominant focus of presentations at the 1989 conference was showing how transportation investment supports jobs.  At this conference, in contrast, we had speakers talking about how economic development is (or should) factor in transportation decision processes for asset management, right sizing, maintenance and repair, finance, operations and programming, prioritization, long term planning and resilience evaluation. The speakers and poster session offered a substantial set of examples of how various transportation agencies are now carrying out such processes. The conference was also organized in a way that enabled substantial audience participation and discussion of these issues.
  1. The recognized breadth of economic impacts has expanded considerably.  In the early days, we focused on how time and cost savings affect business competitiveness.  At I-TED 2018, we saw the range of impacts go far beyond travel time and cost factors, with numerous speakers assessing effects of transportation improvements on wider elements of economic development including robust labor markets, advanced worker skill matching, global supply chains, lean manufacturing and automated freight technologies, as well as opening new opportunities for isolated and economically distressed communities. There was good discussion of how technology development will further emphasize these factors in coming years, and how various types of economic models, tools and methods can be applied to assess them.
  1. Professional involvement is also expanding. In the past, there was one TRB committee organizing the conference; while this last conference had meetings and sessions for three TRB committees: Transportation Economics, Revenue & Finance, and Transportation & Economic Development.  This difference showed through as we had sessions on the relationship of benefit-cost analysis (BCA) to transportation planning, as well as interactions of financing and planning at local, regional and national levels.  Innovative financing methods continues to grow, while benefit-cost measures are also expanding with growth of the concept of “wider economic benefits.”
  1. Support for further development of this field continued from the key players. The developers of economic impact forecasting and simulation models -- EDR Group/TREDIS and REMI both continued their longstanding financial support for these conferences.  And the leading consulting firms that provide transportation economic analysis – HDR, AECOM, CPCS Transcom, EcoNW and of course EDR Group – were all represented by speakers in the conference program.  The only consultants who were conspicuously missing were the “pretenders” -- firms that say that offer transportation economic impact studies but in fact apply shortcut methods and do not bother to participate in the relevant TRB economic committees or activities. 
  1. Attention to global development has increased. The involvement of the World Bank – as speakers at a policy plenary session and sponsors of a break-out technical session -- was also a welcome addition with very intriguing insights about the challenges of providing infrastructure in developing areas, providing market access to remote locations, and measuring wealth creation in areas where money income is not necessarily a good indicator of well-being.  The importance of connecting communities to job and commerce markets was a theme for developing countries that was also resonated elsewhere in presentations about Appalachia and other rural areas in the U.S.  And the need to recognize prosperity in ways other than personal income is also relevant today in American communities where many people are retirees.  
  1. The “international” aspect of I-TED must continue to expand.  There is a lot to learn from parallel experiences in other countries, and speakers came from countries including France, England, Canada and Argentina to help provide those types of insights.  We heard how similar issues concerning autonomous vehicles, regional connectivity and technology development are facing other countries, and there was a good interchange about how we can learn from each other.  But despite more attention being paid to global development in the conference program and among discussions of attendees, many more countries were missing.  That may be related to the recent trend of fewer international visitors coming to the US. Let’s hope that we can further expand the international breadth of this conference series in the future.
  1. Our evaluation methods are evolving.  There was a very well-attended session on Benefit-Cost Analysis that brought together the disparate viewpoints of economists and economic developers. It highlighted differences in terminology between the economics jargon and popular policy language, and it led to a vigorous debate about benefit measurement. And yet, it was also interesting to see a virtual consensus about the existence of market access, scale, supply chain reliability and connectivity impacts; the debate was not about these effects but rather how to best measure and represent them in BCA.
  1. Planning for changes in technology, climate and the global economy.  Many speakers addressed our ongoing transitions in big data, transportation technologies and the global economy that call for new forms of long-term planning.  The advent of autonomous cars, trucks and aircraft was cited in many of the sessions, with intriguing discussion about the economic development consequences. While most agreed that we cannot predict the short-term evolution path for implementation of autonomous vehicles, or see many benefits while in a transitionary period, the ultimate outcome of connected fleets and integrated multi-modal services (and corresponding shifts in infrastructure needs and economic benefits) can be anticipated. Other speakers noted the need for more robust planning that better considers alternative futures and their impacts on risk. A resiliency workshop further reinforced the need to consider broader economic, social and institutional impacts of hard-to-anticipate incidents.
  1. Federal and state interest in economic productivity and development is still strong.  At the federal level, we had impressively broad participation with speakers weighing in from the US Dept. of Agriculture, Census Bureau, Economic Development Administration, Dept. of Treasury and Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the US DOT agencies (FTA, FHWA and MARAD) and a keynote talk from the Undersecretary of Transportation.  Each of them cited current programs and initiatives that related to, or complement, transportation initiatives. Several of the speakers also made a logic case for giving more focus of grant programs on rural areas – which supply much of our nation’s food and natural resources, are transected by our highway and rail lines, and yet suffer from limited job growth and investment attention. We also heard about statewide transportation and economic development policies from speakers representing Indiana DOT, Maryland DOT and Virginia DOT – all of whom also worry about the rural/urban balance.
  1. Conclusion: This was a very important conference, and its Proceedings document (forthcoming from TRB) will provide useful guidance for a broader set of readers and practitioners in years to come.
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