August 18, 2006 - From the August, 2006 issue

RAND Corp. Revives Transportation Research With Appointment of Prof. Martin Wachs

Despite the ubiquity of traffic congestion and the unfathomable amount of money spent on transportation, it receives relatively little attention and funding from the academic community. But the RAND Corp is trying to reverse that trend with its hire of Martin Wachs, formerly of UC-Berkeley and UCLA. MIR was pleased to speak with Prof. Wachs about his research in transportation funding, California's upcoming bond measures, and his participation in Transportation Solutions Summit in L.A. in September.


Martin Wachs

What are your responsibilities at RAND? And was it the Bay Area's traffic that drove you from UC-Berkeley back to L.A.?

RAND is a superb organization, doing high-quality research in application to public policy. Over the past few decades, RAND hadn't focused on transportation nearly as much as on other civil sectors like education, civil justice, and health. I was recruited in part to participate in expanding RAND's focus on transportation. In the 1960s and the early 1970s RAND was one of the leading creators of new ideas and concepts transportation. The famous book by Meyer, Kain, and Wohl called the "Urban Transportation Problem," which I used as a graduate student in the late sixties, was a RAND product.

To the second question, about the Bay Area, I spent 10 years at Berkeley after 25 years at UCLA, and was very satisfied with an academic career, but it was time to try something a bit different and also for my wife and me to move closer to our adult children in Los Angeles.

What are the array of issues and policy challenges you will be investigating at RAND?

I am interested in expanding RAND's work in transportation finance. I am concerned that the gas tax, which has been the principal means for funding the transportation system in the United States for 80 years, has run its course. We would like to investigate ways of financing transportation that rely upon newer technology and enable us to move away from the gas tax. I think that the day is coming when the government will want to decrease gasoline consumption. If decreasing gasoline consumption leads to decreasing resources to maintain highways and subsidize public transit, there is an inherent problem.

I would also like to work on the interactions of land use, transportation, finance, mobility, social patterns, and how aging and travel work together. The mobility of the elderly is an emerging problem.

We have an increasingly elderly suburban population that is very dependent on driving. When people give up driving, the principal mode of transportation remains the automobile, with someone else driving for them. That kind of dependency is a growing problem for the elderly and it causes older people to remain in the driver's seat when safety considerations would dictate that maybe they ought not to be.

Yet another topic related to that one is traffic safety in general. In the United States over a period of 40-60 years we've lowered the fatality rate per mile of driving. But at the same time we have been increasing the amount of driving that we do so that we still lose 40,000-50,000 people a year to traffic fatalities; many more experience serious injuries and enormous property damage loses. Traffic safety is an area where systematic analysis can yield cost-effective ways of saving lives and reducing injury.

Obviously, public policy makers are interested in traffic congestion and in ways that we might use land use strategies and policies to make cities more livable and, in the process, reduce traffic. I'm also interested in-and I think that RAND is collectively interested in-goods movement. The fact that goods movement is growing at three or four times the rate of growth of passenger movement, even though passenger movement is itself growing, is of great interest to us. The notion of global supply chain management and the interaction between the growth of places like the Ports of Los Angeles, the airport, and the impact that they have on the quality of life in our communities interests us very much.

RAND has historically depended on government money. Who will be funding the domestic research themes that you just discussed?

It is important to note that total of transportation research funding that is available has been decreasing relative to the total economic activity in that sector. That pattern is typical of declining industries, and it worries me. That effect is compounded by the fact that more and more the federal government is earmarking its transportation research money so that it's not available for open competition by those who have the best ideas. To an increasing extent, when Congress gives money for transportation research it designates that money for a particular university or institution. Frankly, I don't think that RAND or any other organization that I would want to be affiliated with would want to promote itself as being effective at getting earmarks. I would rather compete in the open market against others who have good ideas. The question that you raise is complicated because the need for transportation research is growing while funding through the traditional mechanisms is decreasing.

Having said all of that, we are hoping to compete effectively where there are open competitions. We have been writing proposals to get funding through the Transit Cooperative Research Program, the National Highway Cooperative Research Program, and the Airport Cooperative Research Program. These are federal programs in which the states have pooled their money and issue requests for proposals. We've been responding to other requests for proposals in areas that interest us which are issued by states and municipalities. For example, we recently won a contract to advise the Texas Department of Transportation on transportation policy issues.

Beyond all of that we are attempting to appeal to private sector contributors to support our research in particular areas by, for example, creating a global supply chain policy center, and asking companies throughout the United States that have an interest in that area, to join with us as funding partners by paying membership dues and supporting our activities in that area.

If we had 30, 50, or 100 supporters to the tune of $30,000–$40,000 a year each, we could run quite a large program. For large companies, those kinds of dollars are not prohibitive. RAND is a not-for-profit organization and contributions of that sort are tax deductible. Another mechanism is to try to build research support networks in particular areas in which we want to get stronger like global supply change management.

Not since Pat Brown has California considered making infrastructure investments on the scale of the bonds on the November ballot. Are elected officials thinking properly about how to fund infrastructure, or should they consider other strategies?

What I'm about to say is not representative of any view held by the RAND Corporation; it is my personal response.

I support the funding of transportation infrastructure and infrastructure more generally at a much higher level than has been typical in California over the last several years. The bond issues have important strengths, but they also give me some concern. First of all, it appears that they are the only game in town-the only way that we're going to be able to get a large infusion of capital is through these bond measures. There are no alternatives on the ballot, and the Legislature is considering no other major programs. Since the need is so great, of course the bond issues could be called a logical way to proceed.

But, I am also concerned that in areas like transportation, where we have relied heavily on user fees for many decades, that the bond issues are not coupled with provisions for increases in the user fees to repay the additional money that will be borrowed. With every bond issue comes the need to repay the loans with interest over an extended period of time.

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The revenues from existing user fees, principally motor-fuel taxes and, to a far lesser extent, toll revenues, are inadequate to meet our operating costs and to maintain the existing system. I feel that it will be necessary to increase user fees and maybe shift to alternative user fees like electronic charges as a function of how much driving one does, with different facilities priced at different levels.

How does your interest and approach to transportation differ from the Reason Foundation's approach?

The Reason Foundation is a libertarian organization, and they proceed from that ideological standpoint. I am not a Libertarian yet I concur with many of their conclusions. I think that user fees has become a tradition that I respect and that I think is feasible and appropriate to continue. In my commitment to doing that I end up being in a position similar to Bob Poole and others from the Reason Foundation. Like them, I favor greater reliance on tolls and like them I favor expanding capacity in this region by adding truck only toll roads to the mix of facilities that we have now.

You've done a lot of research on links between pollution and transportation, and a great many people in L.A. care both about that issue and healthy place-making. Share with us the nature of your past research and its implications for your work with RAND.

My work is not deeply involved with automotive technology or fuels, which are the ways in which we have improved air quality, especially when you measure it in relation to the driving that we do. Over the last 20 or 30 years driving has increased a lot and at the same time the concentrations of many pollutants have decreased. At the same time, we have discovered other dangers related to air toxics and to fine particulates, and we've learned that the air pollution problem is more complex and deeper than we might have thought.

I believe that technology continues to be one of the more promising ways in which to address those questions, rather than through draconian means of changing people's behavior. On the other hand, I think that we have to use some policy levers beyond technology, such as prices, to induce choices that are realistic and responsive to environmental concerns as well.

Most analysts' address congestion management and the relationship between land use and transportation, but in reality, few plans integrate the two. Shouldn't the integration of land use and transportation planning be a solution to densification, rather than simply the catalyst?

Transportation, urban form, quality of life, and the environment are all tied together. There is a need to address them in a unified way, and our institutions can make it hard to do that.

Let me give an example: the state of California is considering high-speed rail throughout the state. High-speed rail could make an important contribution, or it worsen the problem of traffic congestion depending on how it is integrated with land use and urban form. The difference is in whether high-speed rail is done in conjunction with some sort of land use and development policy.

If we put high-speed rail across the Central Valley and every community wants a station and every community allows land use to develop around its station, then high-speed rail will cause sprawl and worsen traffic congestion in the state.

If we were to couple high-speed rail with a firm land use plan that concentrated development at much higher densities at some locations well served by high-speed rail and if we allowed less development to occur in locations somewhat removed from those concentrations, then the two initiatives working together could have a different effect.

While a lot of people are advocating high-speed rail but are not tying to land use development, I think it could fail and I don't think I am going to support it unless it is tied to a supportive development program. The challenge is to make those things work together. I think the same thing works at a regional level, whether we're talking about Northern California or Southern California, and that it is going to be necessary to strategize and then to build a much more integrated program. Unfortunately, I don't see much political leadership moving us in that direction.

Rand's approach to research is often to put together an interdisciplinary team. What disciplines will be represented on your research team?

That is a wonderful question. RAND has over 800 people in Southern California who have advanced degrees – in most cases PhDs – in mathematics, social sciences, health related disciplines, economics,public policy, and engineering. Teams are already working on some of these environmental and energy questions related to transportation that are highly multi-disciplinary in nature. There is no question that my job involves the mobilization of many smart people at RAND, some of who have prior transportation experience, many of whom do not, but they have first-rate modeling, statistical survey research, and economics experience. In many cases these are people with 20-30 years of experience, so it is a very high-powered group.

Next month you are featured at the Strategy Institute's Transportation Solutions Summit. Give us an overview of that conference: what will it present, and what will you contribute?

My contribution will be to open the conference and to raise the kinds of issues that we've talked about in this conversation. One of the most important ones will be to deal with the shortage of resources. I will certainly address the need for fiscal commitments in transportation over the coming months and years.

The broader theme of the event is to bring success stories and case studies from many parts of the world-from Europe, Latin America, and Asia-and to focus on things that have worked. The organizers of the conference have worked hard to bring us meaningful case studies. Some of them are well known to people in transportation, like Curitiba, Brazil, but that is one example; nine or ten case study cities that will be highlighted in the course of the two days. Some of them will be quite informative and inspirational.

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