By David Ungemah 

Transportation design, construction, and system operations, like many other industries, are being transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental responses to the crisis. 

Motor fuel taxes and toll collections have suddenly dropped to less than half of their budgeted levels. Transit farebox collections have decreased by 50 to 90 percent from anticipated levels. Sales tax revenues have declined over 30 percent, and even longer-term property tax revenue is anticipated to be affected with a softening real estate market. 

Travel behavior is changing, too. There are potential long-term implications to telecommuting, the desirability of transit, shared rides, and demand for commercial space and mixed land uses. 

We are facing a future that is both unknown and without contemporary precedent. 

Some disruptions began before the pandemic. Since 1993, the last time the federal gas tax was increased, inflation has eroded 44 percent of buying power and the average fuel efficiency of a new car has increased 28 percent at the same time. The combination is making the motor fuel tax an unsustainable revenue source. 

Technology is a disrupter, but also an asset during the pandemic. The ubiquitous webcam in laptops, once seen as an unnecessary feature or a security risk, today is as essential to many businesses as email and smartphones. It has enabled telecommuting to increase from single digit percentages shares to upwards of 90 percent of employees at large firms. Industry experts anticipate high rates of telecommuting will continue next year. 

That impacts peak-hour travel. Technology has also streamlined toll and fare collections, with many operators converting to all cashless and touchless collections virtually overnight. Broad adoption of electronic toll and fare collection technologies opens the door to a more collaborative, seamless and customer-friendly approach to transportation payments. 

For example, California and Minnesota are exploring the integration of road usage charges with shared mobility operators. The 15-state Road Usage Charge (RUC) West Consortium is advancing the state of the art for interoperability of these payments. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has pioneered the design for a mobility marketplace, which combines multimodal transactions into one customer account. ODOT’s open architecture accommodates road usage charges, future state tolling, urban congestion pricing and transit fare collection into an open system that preserves vendor options for not only the state but also the end customer. 

Only with these advancements can highway and transit operators meet the growing demands for transportation in congested urban areas, coupled with the absolute necessity of providing for sustainable funding to address our aging systems’ asset management, rehabilitation and replacement. 

Technology also has advanced our ability to manage traffic and transit operations. WSP has leveraged its global experience to bring the Australian Managed Motorways concept to the United States. This technology uses highly precise traffic sensors to provide for real-time flow management on freeways and predictive responses before the onset of congestion. 

Now in development in Colorado, North Carolina, California and Georgia, this technology can provide the same capacity benefit as adding lanes to a freeway, but at a fraction of the cost and without community disturbance. 

The road to post-pandemic recovery of transportation infrastructure is not clearly marked. We must be willing to take new turns, to find new sources of funds, and to use those funds better and more efficiently. The right road ahead includes applied technologies in revenue collection, RUC, mobility marketplaces, and advanced predictive traffic management. 

WSP will continue to provide leadership in all these areas and help clear the path to recovery. 

David Ungemah is national director for Transportation Operations Strategy at WSP USA. See more stories about transportation design and construction industry technology and innovation in ARTBA’s “Smart Design & Construction” supplement.