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Innovation focus of transportation conference

Innovation focus of transportation conference

February 17th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

Using drones to help inspect bridges.

Using trains to help trucking companies move their vehicles more quickly.

Those were just two of the topics discussed Thursday at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry's annual Transportation Conference.

State Transportation Director Patrick McKenna found the day's presentations "extremely useful, because the fact of the matter is, when you bring industry into the room with government, we can talk about the issues of the day and come to some reasonable solutions."

McKenna said having "the Chamber of Commerce to be so strongly in support of transportation investment really is showing that a reluctant industry to increase any type of user fees understands how important the investment is. And getting together and talking about the issues is vitally important."

McKenna also was a presenter, walking the conference attendees through the various issues involving MoDOT's ability to raise and spend money — when the last jump in the state's now 17-cents per-gallon motor fuels tax was a two-cent increase in 1996.

The same goes for the federal government's 18-cents a gallon fuels tax.

Ed Mortimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's director of Transportation Infrastructure, told Thursday's gathering: "I wish I could tell you the federal story is different from that (Missouri story).

"But, unfortunately, it's not."

Mortimer urged Missourians to join transportation supporters across the country in telling Congress the importance of improving funding for the nation's transportation and infrastructure needs.

"We need to have a long-term, sustainable program," he said. "When you don't have predictability from the federal government, states are going to be a little cautious about what they do — because they're not going to know what their federal partner is bringing to the table."

In an interview, Missouri Chamber President Dan Mehan agreed "there needs to be action at the federal level first. And, once we see what that is the state will have to match up, somehow."

Mortimer said, while President Barack Obama did a better job than President George W. Bush of talking about infrastructure improvements, neither president made much of a dent in the problem.

He's hoping the Trump administration's early pledges for infrastructure improvements will be backed with real actions.

But, he said, "We need to make sure these projects are based on sound economics," not just on which politician chairs the right powerful committee — "serving you, the people, and not just serving an individual lawmaker."

Mortimer said the federal government also needs to involve more private investment in transportation and infrastructure improvements, but "the best way to bring in private investment is to increase the public investment — which shows there is a federal-partner commitment to actually long-term systemically funding these programs."

McKenna told the News Tribune conferences like Thursday's help people explore many options.

He noted road projects in Missouri and other states won't be able to keep up with the predicted growth in freight traffic.

"We do not have one solution that's going to fit the whole thing," he said. "We're not going to have the investment capital to build as much capacity on the roadways to meet that demand.

"We're going to need other modes of transportation to pick up slack, and we're going to need new ideas to help us avoid the demand and to manage the demand on the highways."

Jeff Schwartz, a Lee's Summit resident who spent 30 years working with various companies on improving their production and shipping logistics, told the conference one potential solution is his proposed "truck ferry," putting over-the-road trailers and the trucks that pull them onto special trains, to keep them moving along even in those 10-hour periods where, federal rules say, the drivers are supposed to park their trucks and get some rest to avoid accident-causing fatigue.

But that idea still is in its infancy, he said.

Conference attendees also heard from Genda Chen, a Missouri University of Science and Technology professor working to improve drones and their uses.

"You can see how things are evolving over the course of time," Mehan said. "Some of the innovative topics that were discussed (were) drones and the use of technology to analyze the safety of bridges and these types of things."

McKenna said the practical application of that idea could "help us inspect cheaper and quicker and safer, so that we can use our bridge engineers to focus on — rather than looking for the defects, actually going to the spot of the defects after we've located them may be using drone technology."