Skating to where the PUC should be

A frequent reader writes

David Levinson thinks state DOTs should be run like public utilities, rather than state agencies. Public utilities are governed by Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) or Public Service Commission (PSCs). Having both a planning and stakeholder engagement background, and having been engaged in a discussion at a public utility commission for the last year (not related to transportation), I have some thoughts on how this might impact public engagement and decision-making.

  • Discussions (if you can call them that) at PUCs tends to be highly technical, bordering on nearly impenetrable to the average person.
  • The time and energy required to effectively “engage” at the PUC favors people with either tons of free time, or tons of money to pay lawyers who spend all their time at the PUC.
  • Their websites are generally bad.
  • Using the electronic docket system is even worse.
  • If you want to officially comment on something, you’re required to send a paper copy of your comments to everyone who wants them.  This can sometimes be a long list.
  • Proceedings often happen in a back-and-forth written “comment” and “reply comment” process that is resource intensive to track, and can stretch out over long time periods.  This can turn people off/wear them down.
  • All meetings are during the day.

I don’t think any of the above items are necessarily requirements that come with being a public utility commission.  They do operate in a quasi-judicial manner, which perhaps is the genesis of the more formal legal-like process.

In an ideal world, a transportation utility would need to use significantly different processes if they were seeking broad-based, meaningful engagement on transportation decisions.

I don’t disagree. If we are building a regulatory structure and governance system from scratch, we can certainly do better than the existing process. I don’t think the existing regulation of highways and transit is any less opaque – though it does attract more attention just because people care more about transportation than electricity and gas.

Further new infrastructure requires far more public involvement and outreach than maintenance and operations and their associated funding – new construction is inherently more political than technical.