A Presidential Partnership
We might not think about it this way, but every time we buy a gallon of gas — and pay the state and federal taxes associated with it — we illustrate how transportation is inextricably tied to public policy and politics. It’s only natural then that the George Bush School of Government and Public Service and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) would become partners soon after the school’s opening, bringing together some of the nation’s top talent in public policy and transportation research.
The partnership covers many dimensions, says Dr. Arnold Vedlitz, Bush School professor and director of the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy (ISTPP). They include teaching, student involvement, advisory board service, research and publishing. Joint efforts have spanned numerous topic areas, including infrastructure, air quality, climate change and transportation finance.
Urban Decision Making
TTI Senior Research Engineer Tim Lomax worked with Bush School researchers and the City of Houston to produce a decision support system to assist local governments in making infrastructure decisions in a way that balances the competing influences of environmental issues, engineering and planning, and politics. The work was funded through one of the first National Science Foundation grants ever led by TTI.
Local governments devote a generous share of their annual budgets to streets, water and wastewater systems, and other infrastructure needs that require ongoing maintenance, repair and expansion. Professionals in planning, engineering and public works — along with elected officials — all bring forth different perspectives and concerns in the process of providing services that taxpayers typically don’t understand and frequently take for granted. In such an environment, the need for informed and effective decision making can hardly be overstated.
“Our Texas A&M team developed a framework that explicitly incorporates the different perspectives and data from technical, policy and political professionals; this linkage offers a richer and more open decision process,” says Lomax. “Working with professionals and politicians in Houston, we were able to understand how things really happen, as well as envision a more transparent process that is based on everyone’s needs and concerns.”
Climate Change and Transportation Planning
In a transportation sense, climate change goes well beyond the narrow environmental definition. Rather than focusing on the causes that typically spark passionate debate, a study by Bush School Associate Research Scientist Eric Lindquist instead sought to examine its effects and potential impacts on the nation’s mobility.
Lindquist’s study offers insight into how transportation planners and decision makers can more readily adapt to the challenges outlined by climate scientists. Such changes include:
- increased frequency of very hot days and heat waves,
- increases in arctic temperatures,
- rising sea levels, and
- increases in hurricane intensity.
The project’s final report provides a framework for professionals involved in transportation planning and policy, particularly those in coastal areas. The work, funded in part through TTI’s University Transportation Center for Mobility™, added significantly to the so-far very limited body of research on the link between climate change and transportation policy.
Mileage-Based User Fees
The population in Texas is growing, and transportation revenue sources are shrinking, creating a gap between mobility needs and solutions that grows wider with each passing day. As a result, policy makers are exploring new ways to pay for roadways, including the application of mileage-based user fees. Lindquist and Trey Baker, an associate transportation researcher at TTI (and Bush School graduate), assisted TTI Senior Research Engineer Ginger Goodin with her work examining the feasibility of those fees as an alternative to the motor fuel tax in rural and small urban areas.
The researchers collected an extensive amount of public perception data and identified the issues that represented public acceptance barriers to a shift in transportation-funding methods. They also developed a broad framework for the mileage-based alternative based on that public feedback, taking a first step toward pilot testing for such a program in northeast Texas.
Drive Clean Across Texas
For nearly 10 years, the Lone Star State has sponsored the Drive Clean Across Texas (DCAT) campaign, designed to encourage decisions by drivers that will reduce the volume of auto emissions and help the state comply with federal clean air requirements. From the beginning, the Bush School conducted periodic surveys to gauge the campaign’s success.
In a 2003 survey, 23.7 percent of those surveyed had heard of an air quality campaign. By 2007, 40.6 percent of those surveyed were aware of the DCAT campaign specifically. Similarly, in 2003 only 25 percent of survey respondents reported that they had made one or more changes in their behavior (carpooling, using public transportation, properly maintaining their vehicle, checking tire pressure or reducing idling, for example), but by 2008 that number had grown to 62.8 percent.
Graduate Student Internships
Numerous Bush School students have worked as interns while pursuing their graduate degrees, most notably in the Master of Public Service and Administration program. The students produced white papers on important policy topics — including traffic safety culture, passenger rail transportation and the use of ignition interlocks for DWI offenders — and analyzed more than 200 bills related to transportation that were filed during the 2011 legislative session.
In nearly 10 years of collaboration, the Bush School and TTI have developed a working relationship based on mutual respect and trust, says Dr. Vedlitz, who also serves as a member of the advisory board for TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety.
“Both partners know they can depend on one another to deliver high-quality work, on time and with clearly delineated attribution and credit,” he says. “For us, this means we can count on TTI to support our graduate teaching program and our research and publication efforts. And for TTI, they know that the Bush School and ISTPP will do whatever they can to help TTI achieve its goals and meet its legislative mandates.”