Transportation Reform: Lessons from the UK

Regional Plan Association and the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program hosted a luncheon forum on February 20 in New York featuring former U.K. Department of Transport Official Oliver Jones (top left) to speak on transportation reform in the U.K. The luncheon was supported by the Surdna Foundation and JPMorgan Chase.

Jones led the team that wrote the Eddington Transport Study--an independent review for the British Government chaired by Sir Rod Eddington (former British Airways CEO), which made the case for tying transportation funding and decisions to economic performance objectives. The study led sweeping reforms to the Department of Transport in the U.K. and a reorganization of the Department of Transport from modally-focused departments (aka dept. of roads, rail, aviation, etc.) to objective-driven departments focusing on cities, intercity travel, and global trade, to name a few.

Oliver Jones' visit coincided with the release of the final report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission recently and the start of discussions in the U.S. about the next surface transportation legislation at the expiration of the current bill at the end of FY 2009. Jones was joined in New York by panelists (2nd from left to far right): Richard Ravitch, principal of Ravitch Rice and Company, Astrid Glynn, Commissioner of New York State Department of Transportation, Frank McArdle, Commissioner on the National Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Emil Frankel, Director of Transportation Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Robert Puentes, Fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

Download Oliver Jones' PowerPoint.

Panelists gave short responses to Oliver Jones' presentation. Richard Ravitch, who has played a leadership role in America 2050, heartily endorsed the Eddington Study's focus on economic performance. He underscored the importance of planning and investing in the infrastructure that supports goods movement, a vital piece of the economy, which is often under addressed ("freight doesn't vote"). He noted that politicians and the public are so afraid of the cost of infrastructure investment that it is impossible to have a frank discussion about what is needed in the U.S. Thus, he urged us to postpone the discussion on cost and move forward with developing a growth framework for the U.S. and then exploring the tools and methods to finance it.

Astrid Glynn, Commissioner of the New York Department of Transportation, drew on her recent experiences conducting public outreach for NYSDOT's 20 year strategic plan. She noted that the upstate New York audiences that she has interacted with thus far are keenly interested in climate concerns and energy independence. She stressed that we must find a way to account for overall costs of transportation in the pricing structure, including costs of energy, climate impacts and pollution. She also asked how we can capture the large economic value of infrastructure investment by the public sector and use it to pay for the infrastructure itself.

Frank McArdle, Commissioner of the National Surface Transportation Study and Revenue Commission noted that he had been strongly influenced by the Eddington Study, which he happened to stumble upon the day it was released and as he began work on the U.S. Commission. He urged the audience to read the Eddington Study's underlying economic analysis, which he found valuable. He highlighted the focus on performance standards of the National Commission's report, which were inspired by the Eddington Study, and also stressed the Commission's proposals for cutting down the time of project implementation, which greatly increases the costs of projects in today's marketplace.

Emil Frankel, Director of Transportation Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center noted the importance of the Eddington report being positioned an economic study, not a transportation study, and its focus on transportation as an "enabler" of economic activity. He discussed the challenge of transportation reform and the need for leadership from the next President, as well as business, civic, and labor leaders all calling for a paradigm shift. He provided a cautionary note for comparing the U.K. to the U.S. The U.S. is a federal republic and the U.S. DOT plays a different role than the U.K. Department of Transport. Federalism in the U.S. poses a challenge to seeking some of the same reforms as the U.K. has achieved.

Rob Puentes, Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, in closing, highlighted the important of the benefit cost ratio analysis that is conducted in the U.K. Prior to the Eddington Study, the U.K conducted these benefit costs ratio (BCR) studies but, according to Oliver Jones, did not duly consider them in their transportation decision making. Now they pay great attention to the BCRs in weighing transportation projects. They also consider the "agglomeration effects" of cities and metropolitan areas in their BCR calculations, which tends to favor transportation investments in metropolitan areas, something that the current U.S. system decidedly does not do. But Rob pointed out that the U.S. does not conduct BCRs at all, so there is a big data and analysis challenge ahead of us if we are to adopt a system of analysis and decision making similar to the U.K.