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Good money after bad

First publishedon www.ITSInternational.com
2010 May June
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Editor of ITS International
Jason Barnes, Editor of ITS International
Fundamentally, as human beings, we tend to want much the same things. We share a desire for security or, more precisely, a lack of insecurity. We want to have some keystones in our lives and to know where we’re going. In many respects the ITS sector is no different. Travel the world and look beneath the top-shine. You’ll the same fundamental issues over and over.

A few years ago, I lamented to a senior industry figure over the lack of progress in road user charging in the UK. I criticised the continued spending of money on research when it was clear that we already know much of what we need to know.

“Ah,” he said, “but you’re not looking at it in political terms. A million spent here, a million spent there… it’s nothing next to the billions required for actual deployment. Continued trials push that into someone else’s electoral cycle. It becomes someone else’s problem but it still looks to the public like you’re making all the right noises.”

It was a lesson in realpolitik and I suddenly felt quite naïve.
Earlier this year, I moderated at a road user charging event in Brussels. My panel included two experts from the charging and tolling sector, Steinar Furan of Q-Free and Volker Vierroth of Satellic.

Both told the assembled audience what has been perfectly obvious to many transport professionals for years now: that the relevant technology is mature and that governments need only get on and tell suppliers exactly what form they want their charging and tolling schemes to take. Industry can and will deliver the goods.

As I say, some issues are universal. On pages 36-37, Skymeter’s Bern Grush refers to the US’s delay-by-trial tactics. He lambasts the bluster and obfuscation which has thus far resulted in very little that is tangible. He’s right. Jack Opiola, on pages 33-34, notes how in the US, despite burgeoning debate, distance-based road user charging will probably be left to hang in the breeze by the current administration. I don’t doubt that he’s bang on the money, too.

Perhaps none of this would matter were it not for the fact that there are some very serious structural issues which need to be tackled. The US’s Highway Trust Fund is technically bankrupt and infrastructure the world over faces funding and maintenance issues, something which recent economic downturn has thrown into sharp relief. And that’s even before we get to the elephant in the room: managing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Isn’t it time to stop and do the sums? What we have now doesn’t work and cannot be made to work with some mild tweaking. What we need is a fundamental rethink and then action. What we can’t afford is another 10, 20 or 30 years of prevarication. Not for the sake of some passing politician’s over-preoccupation with generating a good soundbite.

I’ve suggested before that transport and infrastructure are too important to be left to the vagaries of the government of the day – whichever country you happen to be in. They deserves to be placed in the hands of a non-partisan organisation with very much longer-term aims. More and more I’m convinced that that’s the case.

I suspect, however, that I’m really not grasping this realpolitik thing…

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