Brad Sinkaus

Beyond Traffic, Department of Transportation

Beyond Traffic, Department of Transportation

What do Denver, Colorado; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and San Antonio, Texas have in common? Last week, these communities were among the 140 around the country to unite for Stand Up for Transportation Day, organized by the American Public Transportation Association. Their purpose was clear: urge Congress to pass a long-term funding bill to sustain the transportation system for the future.

Chronic underinvestment is a key reason for the precarious state of our nation’s transportation system. Bridges, waterways, ports, roads, rail, and transit received grades ranging from “C+” to “D-” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. They cite a lack of investment, deteriorating infrastructure, population growth, and emerging threats such as climate change as key contributors to the current state of transportation systems.

Statistics on the condition of our transportation infrastructure are staggering. According to the Department of Transportation’s newly released draft report, Beyond Traffic, 65 percent of U.S. roads are in “less than good condition” and 25 percent of bridges “need significant repair or cannot handle today’s traffic.” It projects that sea level rise would put Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans underwater by 2045, in addition to threatening numerous other major airports. And the federal gas tax, which sustains the Highway Trust Fund, has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon for the past 20 years and is almost completely depleted. If the Fund is not replenished, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be at risk and billions of dollars in federal funding will prevent state and local government transportation and transit projects from moving forward.

With the entire system in jeopardy, considerable effort is needed to ensure the future of transportation infrastructure. The following areas demonstrate where change can have the most impact:

  • Increase Awareness: In a recent poll, only 8 percent of Americans cited infrastructure spending as a major problem affecting the country. While investing in transportation is a necessity for improvement, it’s difficult to convince people that spending $3 million now will save $6 million on future costly repairs. Events like Stand Up for Transportation Day bring awareness to the state of infrastructure funding, which could help foster consensus among communities of the immediate need to address the infrastructure crisis.
  • Encourage Innovation: According to Beyond Traffic, smartphones have turned apps like Uber into a $40 billion industry, demonstrating that data “enables innovative transportation option such as car­sharing, ride­sharing, and pop­up bus services, and more rapid delivery of goods.” The Verge recently published an article on the role that open gangway railcars could play in increasing efficiency and reducing cost in mass transit throughout the country. Used widely internationally, open gangway cars allow passengers to move freely from car to car, rather than having to exit and re-board another car in the event of overcrowding.
  • Incorporate Resilience: Demographic, geographic, and climatic changes need to be taken into account when developing policy initiatives. Enacting policies blindly only leads to cost increases and longer service disruptions down the road, which is why events like major population changes and extreme weather need to be considered when crafting transportation policy. Following the events of Hurricane Sandy, New York City put together a plan of resilience recommendations, one of which includes raising traffic signals in flood-prone areas to minimize the potential for road disruptions due to damage from flooding.

The best approach for ensuring the long-term health of our nation’s transportation system includes three elements:

  • fostering community support for funding,
  • generating 21st century solutions, and
  • building resilience into policy initiatives.

As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stated in a recent Google fireside chat, “Rather than find ourselves stuck because we didn’t look out far enough . . . we put these facts in front of the American public and then we spend time working in Congress, working with state capitals in local communities, city halls, to figure out how we move forward. The idea here is not to be prescriptive, it’s to define the problem, and let the solutions evolve organically.”