Investing in transportation will move America forward
By John Barton
Our transportation system is in serious need of investment to ensure public safety and quality of life, while keeping U.S. businesses competitive around the world. Cities and states feel the weight of stressed or deficient infrastructure most acutely, whether from heavy traffic congestion, transit service lapses or severe asset deterioration.
In the past few years, we’ve seen voters coast to coast approve initiatives to direct hundreds of billions in funding — from bonds, sales taxes, fuel taxes and fees — to restore or expand local or statewide transportation assets. If these financial commitments are bolstered by an effective new federal transportation funding bill, we will have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address lingering deficiencies and to position our infrastructure to address our future needs. The challenge will be to ensure that we spend the money on the most valuable priorities and in the most effective ways.
Let’s consider these points as we work together to meet this challenge in the coming years:
Integrate transportation solutions — By increasing collaboration among transportation agencies and across the private sector, we can revolutionize mobility for virtually every member of society while achieving much higher levels of efficiency. Integrating payment systems and smartphone apps across public and private transportation providers would be a great first step. We also need to rethink how we evolve our facilities to more efficiently transition people between modes — from airplane, to transit, to cab or ride-hailing service, and even to parking lots. If we invest in a high degree of integration, it will help to optimize performance and the return-on-investment for every mobility provider, which should translate to more transportation options for more people at a more affordable cost.
Reform transportation policies and dismantle silos — In many states, there may be significant overall revenue available for transportation improvements, but the money isn’t authorized to flow to where it can make the most impact. Stove-piped organizations and funding sources also contribute to weak connection points between transportation modes. An example of this is rising congestion and lost profits due to freight bottlenecks, which could be eased by investing in smoother transitions of goods between ports, rail systems and highways.
Innovate relentlessly, but prudently — We are poised to bring to life infrastructure solutions that last longer, take less time to build and require less money to operate. However, a great deal of innovation is needed that will draw upon new partnerships, emerging technologies and creative approaches to increasing capacity without simply building more infrastructure. There is a lot of energy around innovation right now in the industry, and it’s pushing everyone toward action. We should be encouraging these innovations. Still, we must advance these innovative technologies with the same rigor we’ve always demonstrated as transportation leaders, keeping public safety ever at the forefront of all we do. Think back to previous innovations that have reshaped transportation, such as cruise controls, airbags and anti-lock brakes, that resulted from years of testing, learning and refinements. Similarly, today we must employ the world’s most dynamic and disruptive tech companies to revolutionize transportation, but do so in a methodical, careful way.
Build resiliency into our mindset —Events like hurricanes, wildfires and flooding can overwhelm what each region’s infrastructure was designed to withstand. So, each community must assess and determine their needs for resiliency for themselves. These strategies should address how they will keep supply lines open during and after a crisis, maintain public services throughout an event, and quickly restore operations of their public infrastructure. Such a “bounce-back” was achieved in Houston, which was able to restore many critical transportation routes within a few hours and days of Hurricane Harvey slamming the city. Communities should review priorities for investments in evacuation planning and routes, communication networks and systems, hardened infrastructure and other strategies
There are many other approaches that might help us improve our transportation system while ensuring that we spend every dollar effectively on the priorities of greatest value. We can only hope that debates in Washington and in statehouses across America will not only lead to sustainable funding for our infrastructure, but also give transportation innovators the freedom to be more creative and innovative as they rebuild our vital systems for what lies ahead.
John Barton is DOT market sector leader and senior vice president for infrastructure solutions firm HNTB. Working in collaboration with regional/division presidents and office leaders, Barton develops and directs strategies to enhance HNTB’s service to state departments of transportation across the country.