Earlier this month, Governing named NextGen – the federal government’s high-tech plan to upgrade the country’s flight system from one based on radar to satellites – as one of its top five “in limbo” transportation projects.

The project has huge benefits. That switch, along with other technological improvements, would allow for more efficient flight paths, reduced fuel consumption, smaller carbon emissions, and less flight delays. But it comes with a high price tag: FAA estimates that the infrastructure cost of NextGen through 2025 is $15 billion to $20 billion, plus another $19 billion for the cost of equipping airplanes with the requisite technology.

That instantly makes it one of the country's most expensive infrastructure projects, and it's one many people, in a world where the debate about transportation often focuses on highways and transit, often overlook.

It's an issue state and local leaders may be wise to monitor.  NextGen advocates note that air travel is a linchpin of the economy, and modernization could greatly improve it. Meanwhile, since localities manage most airports, any substantial changes would affect their operations.

The much-respected Eno Center for Transportation drew a packed crow of transportation officials, including former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, to an event revealing its newest study on NextGen.

Eno’s new report – available here – provides insight into how the effort might be funded and explains the potential costs and benefits. Among the obstacles facing NextGen, according to Eno, are:

  • the difficulty experts have had quantifying its potential benefit
  • the hesitance by airlines to shoulder the costs associated with modernization
  • the limited federal funds to pay for the project
  • the lack of political leadership in prioritizing NextGen
  • the FAA’s difficult history with modernization (in the 1980s, modernization was estimated to cost $12 billion and be ready in 10 years). 

Read the full report below.