Seasoned Vet Takes the Wheel as Transportation Lead at Burns & McDonnell. By Richard Massey 10-Dimensional: Mike DeBacker
How this occurs will probably look different in each state and region, depending on how citizens view transportation. Some may fund the improvements with increased fuel taxes. Others, with tolling or sales taxes. Transportation development districts also are coming, and some states are turning to general revenue allocations. It’s interesting that most of the momentum is occurring at the state and local levels. C+S: Trends in transportation are certainly following the arc of tech- nology. In your new role, how are you going to incorporate technology as you partner with clients and policymakers? MD: Technology will allow us to travel smarter – with both smarter vehicles and smarter transit resulting from efficiencies in signal timing, station stops, etc. We also will have better technology in our hands for smarter routing and shorter travel times, which can relieve congestion and provide more modal choices and integrated choices for transport. Infrastructure is also getting smarter, but technology in our vehicles, in our transit systems, and in our hands will lead the way at this time. C+S: In terms of policy, what does the federal government need to do to help firms like yours fix the problems plaguing the transportation grid? MD: Surface transportation is just one of the many challenges and competing interests that policymakers must deal with, and things have become extremely partisan. This is new because infrastructure policy previously has not been particularly partisan. Unfortunately, we are in a hyper-partisan environment right now. Our policymakers must find the political courage to fund transportation infrastructure or change the model so that it functions more as a public/ network utility. This starts with the reality that we will need to play some catch-up and also acknowledge that the fuel tax is ultimately a declining revenue source. We must look at other user-based options, like tolling – more of a network utility model moving forward. Again, we are in a perfect storm with the existing infrastructure that served us well for decades. Back in the early 2000s, it began reaching the end of its life, and now we have deteriorating highways and bridges along with a fuel tax that hasn’t changed at the federal level since 1993. Those factors are combined with federal government mandates for higher fuel economy, which is wonderful in a lot of ways because vehicles are more economical and less-polluting, but it all creates an urgent need for solutions. So, what we need is some real political courage. In the short term, we need to index fuel taxes. And in the long term we need a new model, such as a user fee model where you pay for what you use. What is interesting is that due to challenges at the federal level, we will see new appropriations at the regional and state levels. Local elected officials and chambers of commerce have come to the conclusion that they must expect less. So, we are looking to solve our transportation problems locally and at the state level. The challenge with that, of course, is the Interstate system was set up as a network, and without a larger look this will be done piecemeal. There will be funding at those levels long
Mike DeBacker sees the future of transportation from many different angles. Technology will certainly play a role in the ongoing challenge of moving goods and people from Point A to Point B: electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, micro-mobility, and the associated network of smart infrastructure and devices. But DeBacker also sees a more tra- ditional factor – funding – playing a role. A waning federal gas tax, gridlock in Washington, and a crumbling web of roads and bridges, are creating the perfect storm in which decision makers and asset owners will increasingly look to the state and local levels for answers, and will consider alternative forms of financing and project delivery to get their improvements underway. And DeBacker, as the new general manager of the Transportation Global Practice at Burns & McDonnell, will no doubt be part of the unfolding story. A 30-year veteran of transportation, DeBacker assumed his new posi- tion in July, when former general manager Ben Biller retired. Backed by a powerful, 7,000-person firm with a robust culture fueled by em- ployee ownership, DeBacker said he and his team are well equipped to compete and succeed. Here are his thoughts on where we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. Civil + Structural Engineer: You have nearly 30 years of experience in transportation policy, planning, and design. What is the critical chal- lenge ahead for this country as it faces deficiencies in transportation infrastructure across the board – land, air, and water? Mike DeBacker: First, I want to say how fortunate I feel to have spent my entire career focused on transportation – one of the biggest drivers of the economy. There is no question our main challenge is the fact that we are nearing or even past the original design life of most of the surface transporta- tion infrastructure built during the Interstate era. The vast majority now requires replacement or major rehab. We could have met the maintenance demand for this system if the federal fuel tax levels had been indexed for inflation. But they were not, and the last federal fuel tax increase was in 1993, putting the rate at 18.4 cents per gallon. Since that time, buying power is now about 50 percent of what it was then. We are living in a perfect storm in which government-mandated standards for increased fuel economy are resulting in lower fuel tax revenue. This, combined with a lack of indexing for the fuel tax, is leaving us further and further behind. And now, with electric vehicles on the way, it is obvious we need to look at new ways to fund surface transportation infrastructure.
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