Building a New Consensus on Infrastructure

As the US Congress struggles to find a long-term solution to funding the Highway Trust Fund, a new approach to prioritizing investments in transportation systems could greatly improve the infrastructure planning process.

The companies that rely on road, rail, and port networks to connect them to customers and suppliers worldwide, and the government planners responsible for building these trade arteries, exist in different universes.

They have different financial goals and work to very different timescales. While companies are tied to profit targets and product life cycles, planners develop infrastructure that can take a decade to complete and be in active service for many decades.

Another complication is that the public sector must deal with a diverse base of stakeholders, including public interests that often oppose new projects. There is political pressure too; pallets don’t vote, so consumer demands often trump commercial needs.

The way that new projects are planned also presents problems. Long-range planning is frequently driven by point forecasts based on macro factors to map future demands for infrastructure capacity. This approach is deeply flawed because it projects historic experience without paying due regard to future technological and economic changes.

In 2011 MIT CTL launched a research initiative sponsored by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program called Future Freight Flows (FFF), to develop a methodology that any transportation planning agency in the United States can use to allocate (scarce) funds to freight infrastructure projects. There were two main goals. First, expand the thinking of planners to consider multiple potential outcomes and futures. Second, enable better communication between the stakeholders.

Scenario planning, a decision-making process used for strategic and long-range planning, was at the heart of the initiative. In this method, users envision and prepare for different futures that are depicted in specially created scenarios. The method allows users to prepare for a range of plausible futures rather than trying to predict specific outcomes 20 or 30 years out. Scenario planning is also uniquely suited to bringing disparate parties together, and exposing them to the real-world consequences of planning decisions.

MIT CTL developed a scenario planning tool kit that includes four scenarios, guidebooks for facilitators and participants, and material such as brochures and videos that bring these futuristic worlds to life. In 2011 MIT CTL took the scenario planning program on the road in a series of one-day, interactive workshops in venues across the country.

Some two years later these efforts are yielding results.

For example, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), an organization that took part in the interactive workshops, is using the internet to create greater awareness about the regional freight network. A web-based mapping application called PhillyFreightFinder enables users to gain a deeper understanding of how freight moves through the region’s airports, highways, railways and waterways, and the broader impact on transportation systems. Much of the inspiration for these tools came from the scenario planning workshop.

DVRPC is developing a working group of regional stakeholders, including businesses. The group will provide insights and perspectives on different projects, much like the user groups did in the MIT CTL workshops. And they will vote on their preferred options, and “game-changer” projects that could have a major impact on the region’s economy.

Another workshop participant, Washington State Department of Transportation, is using scenario planning to test the point forecasts it is mandated to use to predict freight growth in Washington’s new State Freight Plan. The scenarios provide a richer picture of the macro-level drivers that impact the volumes and types of traffic that WSDOT has to plan for.

While initiatives like these will not solve the nation’s infrastructure funding problems, they will help to bridge the divide between the public and private sectors.

The end result could be more responsive, cost-effective freight transportation systems that help US companies to sustain and improve their global competitiveness.

This article is based on the Harvard Business Review blog post A Better Approach to Infrastructure Planning by Dr. Chris Caplice, Executive Director, MIT CTL, and MIT CTL Researcher Dr. Shardul Phadis, published July 10, 2014.  


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