How to Fix US Infrastructure With $1 Trillion

Welcome to 2017, where it seems like the one thing elected leaders can maybe, perhaps, possibly agree on is that America’s infrastructure is busted. That, and that the only way to spruce things up is by flinging a trillion dollars at the country’s roads, waterways, and broadband networks.

President Trump’s team wants to do it by triggering private spending with $137 billion in tax credits; Senate Democrats have floated a plan based on direct investments. Whatever the answer, finding the money is but half the problem.

Because man, oh man, is there a lot to do. From our tragically polluted pipes to packed airports, American infrastructure is, as the saying goes, a failing pile of garbage.

The real question, then, is how to spend that (still very theoretical) avalanche of bipartisan cash. “Decision makers need to know exactly where to wisely invest those dollars so that we don’t piss away $1 trillion on solving problems that don’t exist or in areas that won’t get you the biggest return,” says Michael Pack, who researches intelligent traffic systems at the University of Maryland.

In the interest of keeping this discussion manageable, we’ll set aside the cracked levees, overflowing landfills, broadband-free regions for now, and focus on crumbling bridges, potholed roads, and choking traffic. You know, the ground transportation stuff.

Here’s where to start, and where to go from there.


Step one: Repair. States must ditch the habit of spending more on building and widening new roads—things that, reminder, don’t necessarily help with traffic—than on fixing the ones they’ve already got. Between 2009 and 2011, according to Smart Growth America, states shelled out $20.4 billion on new stretches of asphalt and just $16.5 billion to maintain the other 99 percent of the system. You can see why: Cutting a ribbon on a new stretch of interstate makes for a way better press release than filling another pothole. But lord, is it dumb.

Meanwhile, many of America’s mass transit systems are a tire fire (or track fire). Transit ridership is growing faster than the US population (thanks, millennials). A crap ton of rolling stock is past its intended lifespan and needs replacing: half of heavy rail cars, a third of commuter rail cars, and a fifth of transit buses.

That shoddy, rusty infrastructure exacerbates overcrowding and delays, and it can also prove dangerous: A 2015 electrical malfunction on a stretch of Washington, DC, Metro track killed one and sent 70 to the hospital. Transit needs money for tinkering.

Wiring It Up

OK, but the country still definitely needs new things. And if it’s going to build them, it should consider the ways in which transportation is changing. “Any road or transit that you redo—even if you’re upgrading it—you ought to be using that opportunity to embed technologies,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a DC think tank.

That means sensors and cameras to identify and ultimately mitigate traffic congestion. Wires and cables to transmit data, onboard computers to track rail cars, smart traffic lights to sense and give priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Freshly-painted road stripes and signs to assist autonomous vehicles in figuring out where they are and how to maneuver.  Electronic toll collection and maybe even infrastructure built to communicate with self-driving cars. Then there are the consumer-facing software and apps, ones that crunch the data and help people understand the fastest, healthiest, cheapest, most sustainable ways to get to where they want to go.

“For a little bit of money, you could make this infrastructure intelligent,” says Atkinson, and though he means “a little bit” in big-money infrastructure terms, he’s not kidding. The US Government Accountability Office estimates rigging up the whole country with real-time traffic management system—to fight traffic, cut down travel times, reduce emissions, limit crashes, let officials coordinate during emergencies, and help agencies identify pain points and plan for the future—would cost just $1.2 billion. And it would save Americans $30.2 billion in economic, safety, and environmental costs in less than ten years. Wire ‘er up.

Smarter Money

OK, back to the getting money thing for a moment. $1 trillion sounds great, but it ain’t enough, not if the country wants to keeping fixing roads ten years down the line. According a US Department of Transportation report, just maintaining current highways and bridges through 2030 will cost a cool $65.3 billion—per year. That’s being conservative.

The good news is that the government doesn’t have to keep paying for our roads and bridges. “In the case of transportation, it’s pretty easy to not just charge the federal taxpayer, but the actual user,” says Genevieve Giuliano, a transportation policy researcher with the University of Southern California. The federal gas tax, which funds our federal transportation infrastructure, hasn’t been raised, or even adjusted for inflation, since 1993.

Now, as vehicles become more fuel efficient and quit gas altogether, someone’s going to figure out how to pass the costs of wear and tear on to the people who are actually creating it. “Until someone says, ‘We the users should be paying for this system and here is the way we’ll do it,’ it won’t change,” says Giuliano.

Economists have a few ideas: bill drivers by the number of miles they actually drive. (States like Oregon, California, and Colorado are taking this idea for an experimental spin.) Put in more toll roads. Or get heavy into congestion pricing, which adjusts fees based on how many people want to use the road at a given time. (Have you heard about this supply and demand thing?) These changes would be unpopular, and might get a few folks un-elected. But they’re smart, necessary adaptions to a changing world.

Power to the People

Of course, it’s difficult for federal actors to direct all this from high atop their swamp. They shouldn’t try. Some of the smartest infrastructure planning and spending should and will happen at the local level—a departure from the top-down, interstate-driven infrastructure of the last century.

“Each region has its own safety priorities,” says Wassim Selman, who heads up the North American infrastructure division of the engineering firm Arcadis. For Washington, DC, more protected bike lanes. For rural Montana, a safer way to make left turns on big highway interchanges. In suburban Michigan, a bus rapid transit system. Send the check, and let the people figure it out.

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