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Six Ideas for Fixing the Nation's Infrastructure Problems

Here's how to plan, fund and make a safer, more efficient transportation system.

By most accounts, transportation infrastructure in the United States is in serious disrepair. As roads and bridges across the country continue to age and deteriorate, governments at all levels are struggling to pay for maintenance and upkeep -- not to mention investments in much-needed upgrades and new projects. Since the federal Highway Trust Fund was established in the late 1950s, total combined highway and transit spending as a share of gross domestic product has fallen by about 25 percent, according to the federal National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. Without changes to current policy, the commission projects a federal highway and transit funding gap totaling nearly $2.3 trillion through 2035.

With Congress debating reauthorization of the transportation bill this summer, and with states and localities looking for their own solutions, here are six ideas for fixing the nation’s infrastructure system -- how to plan it, how to fund it and how to make it safer and more efficient than ever.

Revamp the Highway Trust Fund

Speaking before a conference of state transportation officials in a D.C. hotel ballroom in March, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood challenged his audience to ask him some hardball questions. John Schroer, the transportation commissioner from Tennessee, delivered. Schroer wanted to know how Congress and the Obama administration are addressing a situation most state and local transportation officials worry about: the future of the gas tax. “Well,” LaHood replied, “we’re not doing anything about it.”

That’s a serious problem, according to virtually all transportation experts. The nation’s highways are primarily financed by the Highway Trust Fund, which gets most of its money from a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. The tax has remained unchanged since 1993 and isn’t tied to the price of gas or inflation. As a result, it’s lost a third of its purchasing power over the past 18 years. That’s caused both short- and long-term consequences. In the short term, Congress has had to bail out the trust fund to the tune of $35 billion since 2008 -- the fund spends more money than it takes in. In the long term, the situation is even more problematic. As more and more Americans opt for hybrid and electric vehicles -- and as cars in general continue to become more fuel efficient -- the highway system faces a future in which it is perpetually underfunded. It’s a system, Schroer says today, that is “at best archaic.”

So what’s the fix? In the short term, a 10-cent increase to the federal gas tax, indexed to inflation, could provide some comfort. A commission authorized in 2005 by the previous highway bill has endorsed that plan as a way to generate an extra $20 billion per year for the trust fun and recapture the tax’s purchasing power. The 10-cent increase would cost U.S. households an average of $9 per month, which would equate to about 1 percent of household spending on owning and operating vehicles. But even that modest bump may be a difficult sell when the price of gas hovers around $4 per gallon. “I don’t think that at this time, raising the gas tax is an option,” says Bill Kennedy, a county commissioner from Yellowstone County, Mont., and a member of the commission that made the recommendation. “I don’t think the public is in favor of that.” It’s not just the federal government that’s reluctant to address gas taxes. No state raised its gas taxes last year, and just a handful did in 2008 and 2009.

In the long term, just about everyone besides federal lawmakers endorses a transition from a gas tax to a vehicle miles-traveled fee (VMT). That would be a truer “user fee” that pegs drivers’ payments to their use of roads, essentially solving the funding problem caused by fuel-efficient cars. “We’ve got all these federal policies toward reducing fuel consumption,” says Trey Baker of the Texas Transportation Institute, a research group within Texas A&M University. “But when you drive down fuel consumption, you’re driving down the revenue base. What are you going to do when the vehicle fleet looks completely different than it does now?”

Shifting to a VMT system would not be simple, of course. The biggest initial obstacle involves privacy concerns: Many drivers don’t like the notion of onboard monitors tracking their driving history. Convincing citizens about the necessity of moving to a VMT system might be tough too. According to research conducted by Baker, which involved interviewing focus groups, many Americans have such a minimal understanding of the current funding mechanisms for roads that making the case for a switch could be difficult.

Still, there are signs that a miles-based fee could be on the horizon: Researchers in as many as 16 states have studied the feasibility of a VMT system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and some are finding that it could work. States don’t need federal permission to implement a VMT, and some transportation leaders believe the best way to bring about a change from Washington would be by first proving a VMT system is workable at the state level.

Get Washington to Take the Issue Seriously

For federal lawmakers on a few key committees, transportation is a major issue. But for most of the rank-and-file, it’s far from the front burner. “For a lot of folks on the Hill, this is just not important enough,” says Susan Binder, a former director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Legislative and Governmental Affairs. “It’s invisible. There are a few players who have been extremely dedicated. [The rest] just don’t seem to have the interest, and it’s absurd.”

Transportation experts are trying to change that by engaging both lawmakers and the public. Transportation for America, an advocacy group pushing for greater investment in transportation infrastructure and an emphasis on multimodal solutions, is treating the issue like a political campaign, says James Corless, the organization’s director.

Meanwhile, those lawmakers who are engaged on the issue often put forth unrealistic proposals. House Republicans are seeking to limit highway spending to revenue from the trust fund, which could result in significantly less annual spending on federal transportation programs. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has proposed a budget that calls for a 30 percent reduction in transportation funding over the next six years. His plan suggests that eliminating duplication of various highway programs would be enough to fix the Highway Trust Fund without bailing it out with general funds or raising gas taxes. Critics say that wouldn’t be nearly enough to bridge the gap. The White House, meanwhile, has called for a six-year surface transportation bill at $556 billion, nearly double the amount in the previous six-year bill. While Ryan’s budget fails to explain the sources of the savings, President Obama’s budget fails to describe the sources of revenue.

State leaders say they need a fully funded, long-term bill, and that the series of ad hoc spending measures that have funded surface transportation since the previous bill expired in September 2009 has crippled their ability to pursue long-term projects.

Compounding that problem are the upcoming elections in 2012. Many experts believe that if Congress passes a reauthorization bill before the elections, states would get less money than if it occurred afterward. For that reason, some state transportation officials are now pushing for a two-year bill instead of a six-year one, with the logic that more funding may become available if they’re willing to wait. For what it’s worth, Florida Rep. John Mica, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, vigorously supports a six-year plan. At a recent meeting of state transportation leaders, Mica joked, “Anyone who talks about anything less, I’ll take you outside and beat the crap out of you.”

Empower State and Local Governments

States pay for about two-thirds of surface transportation spending. With less money available from the feds, their portion may need to grow -- an increasingly familiar storyline in all areas of funding right now. Given that dynamic, states and localities are asking for more flexibility on how they can spend federal dollars and are endorsing plans that would allow the federal government to leverage the limited funds that are available.

One idea that has received bipartisan support is a plan known as America Fast Forward. It’s a proposal to expand a federal program of the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) that provides low-interest loans for transportation projects. The proposal’s biggest cheerleader is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In 2008, Angelinos approved a sales-tax hike for a set of highway and transit projects; but rather than funneling that revenue into new projects outright, Villaraigosa’s goal is to use the money to pay debt on a federal transportation loan. An upfront loan would allow the city to complete its projects rapidly while using the proceeds of its 30-year sales-tax hike to pay it back over time. Currently TIFIA isn’t big enough to accommodate such large-scale plans, which is why Los Angeles has backed a national push to expand the program from $122 million annually to $375 million, and to raise its cap from 33 percent of project costs to 49 percent. “It’s an idea that’s different from a grant program,” says L.A. Deputy Mayor for Transportation Jaime de la Vega. “We’re coming to the table with money and saying we need a partnership. It’s not a handout.”

State leaders are also backing a plan to reduce the number of federal highway programs from 55 to five, in an effort to gain greater flexibility in how the dollars are spent. That would help clear up what some people see as troublesome inconsistencies in how funds are meted out. For example, federal aid can be used for preventive maintenance of highways, but routine maintenance is considered a state responsibility. Rhode Island Transportation Director Michael Lewis recently testified before Congress that his state has to take on debt just to get the required match to receive transportation funds, when that money could have been used to perform maintenance. “Now is not the time to tie our hands and limit the use of transportation dollars and assets,” Lewis told Congress.

Other options that would grant more power to states have been gaining traction in D.C., including creating an infrastructure bank, expanding public-private partnerships and allowing tolling on interstate highways (an idea LaHood has said he’s open to). However, flexibility can be a double-edged sword, cautions Leslie Wollack, program director for infrastructure and sustainability at the National League of Cities. “If flexibility means a state doesn’t want to spend any [of its own] money on transportation enhancement or transit or to collaborate on what’s going on at the local level, then we see that as a problem.”

Increase Rural Access

Highways in rural states play a critical role in the country’s economy: They connect to Western ports to facilitate the transport of goods, and they serve as interstate bridges for agriculture, energy and freight industries.

But with national transportation planning often focused on urban development, rural highways can get neglected, leading to stretched capacity, reduced connectivity and strained two-lane roads used by heavy trucks. Mass transit in rural areas is even more problematic. In 2010, 8.9 million rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation by air, bus, ferry or rail, up from 5.4 million in 2005, according to a report from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Alabama had the steepest drop: Nearly 700,000 rural residents lost access between 2005 and 2010.

As Congress debates reauthorization of transportation funding, rural states will be working to remind lawmakers of their unique needs, says John Cox, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, who recently testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on behalf of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. “In the mix of competing issues for putting together a transportation bill, our priority is to make sure that the rural states are part of that deliberation,” he says, “and that the next highway bill doesn’t become too preoccupied with the legitimate needs of cities to the exclusion of [rural communities].”

But rural states shouldn’t just wait idly for federal funds to trickle down, says Sean Slone, transportation policy analyst for the Council of State Governments. Transportation officials, he says, should use their limited dollars to widen and upgrade two-lane roads and relieve congestion by investing in roadway redesign and technologies that improve traffic flow. “By improving roads in, around and through rural communities, states and localities can better serve the freight, agricultural and energy sectors and make them an even more vital link in the nation’s supply chain,” he says. “That will, in turn, put rural states higher on the priority list for future federal investment.”

Get Cities to Think Big

Massive infrastructure construction projects didn’t single-handedly save the U.S. from the Great Depression. But the New Deal did create millions of jobs and pump billions of dollars into public works projects that became a crucial part of the country’s economic backbone decades later. Across the country, dams, roads, sewage systems and bridges were built with Works Progress Administration funds in the 1930s. Seventy years later, President Obama has sought to replicate the long-term, large-scale investment strategies of FDR. But as local governments grapple with deficits, public officials must decide whether to pour limited funds into giant projects or focus on fixing existing infrastructure. “It’s time to get back to fundamentals -- either you scale back what you’re doing, find a new source of revenue or make changes in rules that affect cost parameters,” says David Luberoff, a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and co-author of Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment. “Making sure you can keep what you’ve got in a state of good repair seems to make a fair bit of sense.”

But rather than dial back, some cities have decided to go big. Consider the $1.67 billion Transportation Expansion Project in Denver, a multi-agency venture to overhaul multimodal transportation networks throughout the metro area. Completed in 2006 and hailed as the model for the next generation of highway and transit construction, the megaproject added 19 miles of light rail and pedestrian bridges, improved highway merging, and widened 17 miles of highway to relieve congestion and handle 300,000 vehicles per day. Its origins date back to a 1992 traffic congestion study, which found that traffic volume along Denver’s Southeast Corridor had exceeded its maximum capacity of 180,000 vehicles per day. In 1999, voters approved two bond measures to creatively finance the highway and light rail.

Villaraigosa’s transit plans for Los Angeles are on a similarly epic scale. His voter-approved tax hike will raise $40 billion over the next 30 years for light rail, subway and rapid bus projects, creating about 165,000 new jobs. If Villaraigosa is able to leverage a federal loan, all of those projects could open within the next 10 years, rather than the next 30.

Neither of these megaprojects would have gotten off the ground without voter support. That’s why it’s imperative that local officials prove to the public that they can make smart investments, says Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives with the American Society of Civil Engineers. Above all, he says, big infrastructure requires a big vision that clearly lays out benefits for local citizens and delivers results.

Make Bridges Smarter

When Minneapolis’ Interstate-35W bridge crumbled into the Mississippi River in August 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145, it became a symbol of the deterioration of the American infrastructure system. Indeed, one-quarter of the more than 600,000 bridges across the country have structural problems or obsolete designs. They’re built to last 50 years; the average bridge today is about 45 years old.

Monitoring bridges’ structural health is more important than ever. But outdated assessment methods and visual inspections don’t catch all the signs of structural fatigue, impact damage and corrosion. That’s starting to change, as more transportation departments explore new technologies that constantly monitor overstressed bridges, alerting officials to structural problems before it’s too late. Automated monitoring systems already scan for bridge deterioration in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the United States, funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology supports the development of state-of-the-art sensors.

Researchers at several universities are exploring other smart bridge technologies, including high-performance steel, self-healing materials and wireless systems that inspect the general performance and health of bridges in real time. The University of Michigan is midway through a five-year project that includes the development of a carbon nanotube-based “sensing skin” lined with electrodes that would detect cracks and corrosion invisible to the human eye. Although most of this technology is still in incubation, the Federal Highway Administration’s 20-year Long-Term Bridge Performance program aims to accelerate the next generation of bridge management systems. Current sensor technology has popped up in some places: Completed three months ahead of schedule in 2008, the I-35W bridge replacement boasts more than 320 sensors that record how the bridge handles stress from traffic.

Scattering sensors across every single bridge in the country might be prohibitively expensive. But it may not actually be necessary, says Franklin Moon, an associate professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. With transportation agencies facing prolonged funding shortages, Moon supports a stratified sampling approach. That means dividing bridges into categories based on various factors -- age, span, material -- and then testing one or two from that population to determine the needs of a certain type of bridge. “[Some people] argue that all bridges are unique and to learn about 600,000 bridges, you need 600,000 sub-populations,” Moon says. “On the surface, I don’t think that sounds credible. We’re going to have to learn to leverage if this technology is ever going to be compatible.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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