Transportation Recovery from COVID-19 Changes Takes Research and Planning

Much of the transportation industry has struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic; however, vaccines are becoming increasingly available. Now is the time to increase emphasis on effective decision-making in anticipation and support of an anticipated robust economic recovery.

Katie Turnbull of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute spoke with TRB’s Transportation Explorers podcast about how Texas is moving various transportation elements forward.

She discussed how research from the widening of the Panama Canal improved understanding about changes to ports of entry and truck traffic as well as increased exports. Looking at this past data now will help understand and build on how these changes, in turn, impact efficiency of shipments to and from the rest of the country.

Turnbull also noted an emphasis in ensuring “that all types of transportation services are available to all segments of the population, and are delivered equitably.” Smart technology research is improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists at intersections, while automated and connected shuttles and buses are now being made accessible to riders using mobility devices like walkers and manual wheelchairs.

Along these lines, in June, the practical applications of transportation planning advances will be the focus of TRB’s 18th Conference on Transportation Planning Applications (AppCon). Instructive and insightful presentations will highlight innovative tools and techniques to address a wide range of planning contexts and challenges illustrated with relevant case studies.

Collaboration is a major route to successful recovery
Airports are now seeing a reemergence of travelers. Airport stakeholders encompass a wide-ranging group from air traffic control tower staff, flight operators, ground handlers, fixed-base operators, and vendors to the actual airport operators. The TRB Airport Cooperative Research Program’s (ACRP) Airport Collaborative Decision Making (ACDM) to Manage Adverse Conditions surveyed airport staff to get a feel for real-time coordination between stakeholders. It is commonly understood that more cooperation can help address local issues and improve overall efficiency.

Nearly all the survey participants responded that they would consider holding such meetings to improve collaboration. The report proposes a step-by-step approach to achieve ACDM implementation, to involve stakeholders, define common goals and objectives, appoint leadership for the initiative, tailor a vision that serves the local needs, and develop a roadmap of successful projects delivering practical improvements.

Improving airport organizational readiness for collaborative partnering is discussed in the recording of a TRB Webinar on working together. Viewers can also learn how to apply ACRP’s Guidebook for Integrating Collaborative Partnering into Traditional Airport Practices to a wide variety of construction projects.

Operators of public-use airports, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and local land-use/transportation planning agencies all have independent yet interrelated planning processes, bound by legal and policy requirements, designed to ensure compatibility. ACRP’s Guidebook for Assessing Collaborative Planning Efforts Among Airport and Public Planning Agencies offers methods on working cooperatively to solve joint transportation challenges in the most effective and efficient manner. Collaboration is a multimodal approach to stimulate comprehensive planning and innovative decision-making.

TRB’s Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) will finalize Guide to Joint Development for Public Transportation Agencies in 2021. The report provides guidance on advancing cooperative real estate or other development opportunities among affected stakeholders as they look for ways to integrate transit systems in the fabric of surrounding development. The final report is expected in 2021. Projects between transit agencies, local institutions, and the local community enhance the use of transit systems while increasing financial return on the original system-wide investment. Current recovery efforts will help bridge the gap in financing transit-system operations, more difficult and complex issues of long-term financing in a context of changing commuter patterns will require more research.

Resilience for the future is part of the planning
TRB’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) is pursuing research to help transportation systems, agencies, and departments prepare for turbulence.

A pre-publication draft of NCHRP’s Mainstreaming System Resilience Concepts into Transportation Agencies: A Guide provides a self-assessment tool to assess the current status of an agency’s efforts to improve the resilience of the transportation system through the mainstreaming of resilience concepts into agency decision-making and procedures.

Forthcoming NCHRP research will produce a guidebook on how state departments of transportation and other transportation agencies can integrate resilience concepts into transportation planning efforts at all scales of application.

As transportation agencies focus on difficult strategic discussions about reconsidering needs and investment efficiencies, right-sizing investments–in which greater social and economic value can be realized by changing course–can also be an appealing strategic-planning conversation. NCHRP’s Right-Sizing Transportation Investments: A Guide for Planning and Programming notes the importance of timing and the rate of change in right-sizing scenarios. The faster the assumed rate of incremental development, the sooner the need and benefit for the right-sizing improvement.

TCRP examines financial and political realities, operational issues, and institutional mechanisms related to implementing and sustaining flexible transportation services. TCRP’s A Guide for Planning and Operating Flexible Public Transportation Services explores the types of strategies that are potentially appropriate for small, medium, and large urban and rural transit agencies.

Airlines are also boosting their abilities to bounce back. A half-day online ACRP Insight Event in May 2020 helped prepare the airport industry for the return of the flying public, sharing a lot of the medical safety precautions and best practices developed in response to COVID-19. Going a step further, an August 2020 ACRP Insight Event was convened on blockchain and its potential applications and use cases at airports. Presentations focused on provenance tracking, data sharing, privacy as well as blockchain basics, and use cases to help airports navigate the new normal.

Funding recovery means taking an eye towards the distant future
The federal government has been bridging some of the shortages in transportation budgets through stimulus packages. An active NCHRP project will identify and document the consequences and significant impacts of federal funding uncertainty on state DOTs, other transportation agencies, and stakeholders and how these agencies have responded and adapted to these uncertainties.

In Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future, a major report from TRB and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, it was estimated that to meet the long-deferred rebuilding of pavements and bridges and to accommodate and manage growing user demand, $45–$70 billion annually will be required until the mid-2030s. Potential options to raise funds to meet demand, boost the system’s resilience, and expand its geographic coverage include lifting the ban on tolling of existing general-purpose Interstate highways and increasing the federal fuel tax to a level commensurate with the federal share of the required investment.

Norm Augustine chaired the committee that produced the report. He also talked with TRB’s Transportation Explorer’s podcast about the infrastructure covered in the most recent $1.9 trillion stimulus. He noted that it comes at a great cost, but it’s something that we have to address. He suggested looking at the system as a whole to see where dollars can best be spent.

According to TRB’s 2014 Transportation Investments in Response to Economic Downturns, credible grounds exist for including transportation capital expenditures as a component of a federal fiscal stimulus program. Moving planned expenditures like road construction forward adds less to public debt than starting projects that would not otherwise happen per the research. Completing these updates sooner also gives the public immediate benefits of the stimulus spending.

The timeliness of spending is also crucial to successful economic stimulus. With infrastructure, multiple deadlines along with accelerated review and approval processes all ensure the most bang for the buck. Delaying stimulus spending risks both missing the period of greatest need, but also diminishes the improvement in employment and income per dollar spent.

Solid planning and good decision-making with TRB
Become a friend of any of TRB’s standing technical committees focused on planning and decision-making, including the Standing Technical Committee on Transportation Planning Policy and Processes, the Standing Technical Committee on Transportation Planning Analysis and Application, or the Standing Technical Committee on Data for Decision Making. By becoming a friend, you’ll expand your network, and you can volunteer to help organize conferences, review papers, or participate in other committee activities.
You can also get involved with future Cooperative Research Program work. Look for ongoing information on calls for panel nominations, new projects, requests for proposals, and problem statement research ideas.
Keep up with the latest news and opportunities by subscribing to TRB’s weekly E-Newsletter.

TRB resources cited in this article:

TRB events:
TRB Standing Technical Committees:
Active CRP project:

Additional TRB resources:

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports:

Beth Ewoldsen, Content Strategist
Transportation Research Board
Published March 29, 2021

This Summary Last Modified On: 3/25/2021

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