On April 25, 2012, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation held the RPO America Peer Symposium, during the 2012 National Rural Transportation Conference in Burlington, Vermont. This special session, held with support from the Federal Highway Administration, focused on “Sharing Innovations in Regional Transportation Planning.”
The final presenter to cover the integration of transportation and economic development was Jeff Pruitt from the Top of Alabama Regional Council of Governments. Pruitt spoke about preparing Alabama’s statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) and its relationship to transportation planning. The 12 regional councils all contribute to the document, consolidating goals to achieve a statewide perspective and guide the next round of regional planning. The Alabama Association of Regional Councils (AARC) coordinates and sponsors the process, with additional support from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama.
The plan’s objectives include embracing sustainability and linking it to other concepts, something that Pruitt said is new for Alabama. He also said they had an understanding of what was happening in the region, but didn’t know how Alabama fit into the global economy. The Center for Business and Economic Research helped the AARC form the guiding principles that call for global awareness and regional competitiveness, finding that foreign direct investment, exports, and transportation were important elements of the state’s role in the larger economy.
Foreign direct investment has greatly increased in Alabama since Mercedes Benz opened an assembly plant in the state in 1993. Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai followed, increasing automotive manufacturers’ presence and contributing to a total of 360 foreign-based plants today, with a book value of $22 billion. This level of investment has impacted the composition of Alabama’s exports (which total $11.2 billion), with automotive and other transportation equipment as the largest category, followed by chemicals and minerals.
This, of course, has several implications for Alabama’s transportation system. The Port of Mobile, on the Gulf of Mexico, is the ninth largest port in the U.S. for cargo volume and the 25th largest for container volume. The state also has 11 inland docks and a major air freight terminal in Huntsville with a large intermodal facility. A new intermodal facility will soon open near Birmingham. Compared to other southeastern states, Alabama has a relatively low reliance on truck traffic. Although truck congestion may not be a problem, increasing general congestion can still cause problems for truck traffic. Pruitt expressed the need for the state to make rail improvements; the north-south rail corridor is almost at capacity.
The Alabama CEDS identifies 31 transportation projects that are key from a statewide perspective, 25 of which are highway projects and the remainder air and rail. Seven projects have a statewide significance, 12 regional, and four local. The transportation element of the CEDS emphasizes moving people and goods, maximizing capital investments, and making healthy communities while incorporating sustainability. Click here for more information about the Alabama CEDS.
A participant asked how the presenters see transportation planning evolving in their agencies in the next months to years. Pruitt mentioned the new transportation bill and making sure transportation officials and other stakeholders are aware of the CEDS and the 31 projects it indentified. Ouellette said that transportation will continue to play a significant role in the planning process, especially after seeing an unexpected level of private sector investment following the public investment in rail infrastructure. Livingston referred to trying the change the conversation, for example using the phrase “mobility planning” to encourage more collaboration and participation by groups not traditionally involved in transportation planning. He also sees a role for increasing use of technology. The Connecticut Office of Policy and Management has recognized the growing importance of public-private partnerships and will hold a conference on the topic. Seto said that transportation planning at all levels will remain a top concern in rural communities. Bair mentioned the implications of a “changing energy future” on transportation networks.
A final question asked if the projects involving partnerships encountered skepticism about the probability of their success. The most skepticism on the northern Maine rail project was from the private sector, particularly the former operator MMA that did not expect the state and regional organizations to mobilize in the way they did. Ouellette said they were able to “meet this challenge right on” and serve as a good demonstration of teamwork. Constant engagement in eastern Connecticut helped to avoid the sentiment of people simply showing up at one meeting for a grant. Livingston explained how valuing participants’ time and commitment was important for sustaining interest.
The proceedings of the 2012 RPO America Peer Symposium were researched and written by NADO Research Foundation Graduate Fellow Kate Humphrey under the direction of Associate Director Carrie Kissel. This work is supported by the Federal Highway Administration under contract number DTFH61-10-C-00050 through the NADO Research Foundation (www.RuralTransportation.org). Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FHWA or the NADO Research Foundation.