Steven Senne, Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, photo, an autonomous vehicle is driven by an engineer on a street through an industrial park, in Boston.

The transportation industry has experienced epic disruptions over the centuries, with trains displacing covered wagons and automobiles muscling horse-drawn carriages off the roads. Now, we appear to be on the cusp of another grand shift in how people will get from place to place, so it’s good to see an effort in Utah look ahead at ways to manage a future transportation ecosystem.

A legislative task force is at work studying whether there are better ways to pay for infrastructure needs — particularly if it’s feasible to privatize certain transportation upkeep functions as is common in some other countries. On top of that, disruption is on the move in the form of ridesharing services like those pioneered by Uber and Lyft, and in the development of self-driving vehicles. There is little doubt that in a decade or two, the ways and means of personal transportation will be different, though exactly what tomorrow looks like is still a little bit in the province of science fiction. For example, will ultra-speed hyperloop tubes displace regional airline routes?

One thing is virtually certain — the trend toward electric-powered vehicles will no doubt continue to make inroads. One major manufacturer — Volvo — has said it will stop making fully gas-powered cars within two years. Since the primary funding mechanism for highway maintenance in Utah is the gasoline tax, that spells trouble down the proverbial road. The task force is looking at alternative revenue-generating methods, including progressive fee assessments that charge people for how much of the roads they use. There are also inquiries into whether it makes sense to create public-private partnerships in which certain revenue-generating toll roads and other infrastructure can be leased to commercial interests that will be responsible for operational and upkeep expenses. In Canada, public entities use “availability payments” where government agencies keep watch over infrastructure but outsource maintenance work to private firms.

Traditionally, transportation planning involves a long reach into the future. Roads are designed with an eye toward needs decades hence, but now, tectonic shifts in technology are making long-range planning more complicated. Consider the inevitable convergence of ridesharing and self-driving vehicles. Some visionaries are predicting a time in which a fleet of autonomous vans will circle in urban areas, offering an immediate ride to any passenger to go anywhere. One industry leader predicts that if and when that happens, we will have need for only 10 percent of the cars we currently have on the roads. Think of what that does to the algorithms of mass transit.

3 comments on this story

The history of disruption in economic sectors shows that change, once begun, can quickly eclipse the ability to stay ahead of the curve. In only a few years, smartphones led to an explosion in personal photography, leading to new photographic phenomenons like "selfies" while decimating the profits of companies that sell small cameras.

The work of the Utah Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force is a smart and savvy response to trends that foreshadow a potential revolution in how people and cargo get from one place to another.