When I was a kid in 1970s Long Island, N.Y., I’d regularly ride along the Southern State Parkway with my parents. Running east to west for 25-plus miles required a 10-cent toll in both directions. Even to my pre-teen mind that seemed a bit onerous, having to dig a dime out each way.
I joined the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) in 2010, and the light went on. I learned quickly just how expensive it is to build and maintain our national transportation network. In short, there are never enough dimes to go around.
Back then, USDOT was stovepiped in how it managed the nation’s transportation system. Trained in distinct disciplines by similarly siloed academic departments, graduates who became employees understandably approached their work in that narrow way, too. By necessity over the past decade, our increasingly complex and interconnected network of transportation modes has forced that mindset toward a broader, more multidisciplinary approach. Transportation engineers are teaming up with psychologists, epidemiologists, data miners and other experts to meet the mobility challenges of the 21st century.
That more philosophical word, mobility — of goods, people and data — has replaced the historical goals of innovating pavement design or regulating signal timing. This new hub-and-spoke approach — where mobility is the hub and the spokes are all those discrete solutions like better pavement — required a revolution in the thinking behind transportation design.
It’s almost a cliché nowadays, but we often take our transportation system for granted. What I believe we need is a revolution in the way the everyday user thinks about it. Each of us has a personal stake in devoting proper attention to our shared system. Think of its maintenance like you would maintaining your own automobile. To avoid buying another vehicle sooner than we have to, we change the oil, rotate or replace the tires, and perform other regular maintenance to ensure our vehicle stays in a state of good repair. If we don’t, we’re forced to spend many times the cost of that upkeep to replace the vehicle. Common sense prevails, and we pay for the oil change.
Whether it’s the gas tax, tolls or a percentage of our annual license renewal, we’re all contributing personally to the maintenance, development and improvement of our shared transportation system. Whether that individualized contribution should go up or not is a topic for elected leaders. Realizing what we’re getting personally for our investment — access to work, play, schools and needed services — is a responsibility we all share.
Every day we make more demands on a system the costs for which are only rising. Let’s keep in mind that regular maintenance is required to avoid heavier costs down the road. And every dime counts.