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Infrastructure Technology Institute

Beyond the Recovery


Much energy and debate is focused on crafting our nation’s economic recovery program. Infrastructure investments will be a large part of the program, an essential and logical action since the restoration and expansion needs are great and the employment and economic multiplier effects generated by infrastructure projects are substantial.

But infrastructure revitalization should not be a once-and-done program. There is a need for a revised long-term infrastructure management strategy to assure that the United States remains secure, economically competitive, and environmentally sound.

This is particularly important for our surface transportation infrastructure – highways, bridges, railroads, and intermodal facilities – where important changes are needed, and some are already underway. Among these important changes are:

• New Funding Basis
Supporting the highway and mass transit systems with user fees, primarily in the form of motor fuel taxes (18.4¢ per gallon at the Federal level, and similar state fees), has worked well for more than half a century, but times have changed. These fees are based on fuel consumption, not fuel costs, yet transportation maintenance and construction costs inflate proportionally to market costs of energy and other resources. This means that the funds to manage the transportation network are lagging behind the costs.

At the same time, vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient in response to policies and prices. A growing proportion of vehicles are not fully dependent on oil, instead using mixes of bio-fuels, hybrid power, and, most likely in the future, electric power from various sources. Yet the current financing system allows the same amount of travel to generate less revenue to support to road network. While total travel, measured in vehicle miles of travel (VMT), continues to increase, the rate of growth has been slowing. When oil prices spiked in the fall of 2008, year-over-year VMT actually decline by nearly 5%. This means declining fuel sales and reduced revenue for the road system.

The most promising financing alternative is a road pricing scheme that charges users by VMT, location, and time of day – congestion pricing. Beyond serving as a revenue collection scheme, congestion pricing has the added advantage of allocating scarce network capacity in proportion to value, as manifested through in willingness-to-pay. Both the effectiveness and technical feasibility of congestion pricing have been proven in major applications around the world and a few in the U.S., though important obstacles remain, including convincing the public that the road system really isn’t free, resolving important concerns about income equity and privacy, and designing a transition process to move to a new funding basis.

• Streamlined Implementation Process It takes too long to implement significant changes to the surface transportation system. Major projects can take a decade or more from plans to pavement. While time is necessary for thoughtful analysis and deliberation, long implementation times boost costs: construction costs continue to rise, and valuable, often essential services are delayed. Rapid implementation can be particularly critical when the task is to restore service after unexpected interruptions, e.g., the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis or the I-580 ramp in Oakland.

The challenges are to find ways to reduce implementation times without sacrificing careful consideration of stakeholder concerns and social and environmental impacts, and while including the best available system and service designs.

Fortunately, there is a growing set of examples of project acceleration strategies that meet these challenges. One of the keys is early engagement of stakeholders and efforts to address and resolve contentious issues, including impact mitigation through design and collaborative efforts among public agencies. Incentive contracting and design-build strategies can also reduce delays. A clearer assessment and better understanding of the economic and social value of proposed transportation facilities may also provide a more objective basis for reaching agreements on project implementation more quickly.

• Integrated Systems versus Silos Transportation is
highly integrated
network system. People and goods usually have a variety of mode and path choices for journeys; modes are both complementary and competitive. Congestion or service disruptions on one mode can cause – and are a motivation to encourage - diversions to another. Yet government programs to invest in, and to regulate, transportation services and facilities tend to keep modes and programs in separate “silos.”

For the nation to get the best transportation service – in terms of capacity, performance, and environmental impacts - it is important to plan and implement integrated systems and services, taking advantage of modal synergies. This suggests, for example, the importance of integrated planning and funding for metropolitan and intercity passenger services. The old terminology was balanced transportation systems. Today there are more outcomes to balance, including environmental consequences, energy and climate change, and equity considerations.

In the freight realm, it has become important to integrate planning for rail and highway facilities and services. Logically viewed as competitive, rail, relying on private infrastructure, and trucks, which now use public highways, are also highly complementary. Container freight, which moves freely between road and rail, illustrates this complementarity. Today, planners and decision-makers in several busy corridors are looking at road-to-rail diversion from the point of view of public policy as a way to decongest the roads and reduce damage to infrastructure.

System integration is not new, but the job is not done. There are needs to address analysis methods, program design and policies, and funding structures that recognize intermodal synergies, including the public benefits of private transportation services.

• Data-Driven Decision Processes
In the race to advance the economic recovery, and in the steady state that follows, it is important to get the most value for investment dollars through data-driven decision processes. This means investing in transportation infrastructure on the basis of objective measures of need, particularly physical condition and operational performance, and value – that is, function and level of utilization, now and in the future.

This presents special opportunities for development and deployment of new and better tools for assessment of structural health and operational performance in real time, the assembly and integration of data to produce useful information for decision support, and the delivery of that information in forms that work for decision makers. Embedded sensors and remote, continuous monitoring – the core activities of ITI - must become the standard for new construction and rehabilitation. Data analysis, forecasting models, and creative reporting will be essential to assure the usefulness to decision makers of the massive data streams these technologies generate.

Change is needed, and change is coming in transportation systems planning and management. The report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (December, 2007) defines a roadmap for long-term change. There are critical roles and opportunities for research, policy development, and organizational change. It is important to look beyond the recovery to build a more robust and sustainable integrated transportation system for the
nation’s future.