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3Qs: Is America’s transportation network on the right track?

Photo by istockphoto.

Transportation spending is a hot-button issue in Congress. House Republications have proposed a six-year, $230 billion extension of the surface transportation bill to fund projects including roads, bridges and public transit. In the Senate, Democrats have pushed back with their own two-year, $109 billion bill, arguing that the Republican proposal would cut transportation spending across the board. We asked Joseph Giglio, executive professor of strategic management in the College of Business Administration and an infrastructure authority, to examine the state of America’s infrastructure and what can be done to improve the system. 

Do we have a national transportation problem in the United States?

No. What we have is a national transportation infrastructure condition. Problems can be solved; our national transportation condition can only be coped with. In the future, our government and society must act with a greater sense of urgency and greater intelligence than we have in the recent past.

For those who believe that a major policy breakthrough in dealing with this condition is likely at the federal level, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. It is now dawning on us that the challenges in transportation (and everything else) represent a permanent condition that will never go away on its own accord, and like a life-threatening disease, could cause significant challenges if not promptly treated. The necessary treatment for our national transportation infrastructure condition will inevitably involve some significant lifestyle changes as well as short-term palliatives.

What are the funding sources for our transportation infrastructure?

Ultimately, there are two basic sources of revenue for our transportation network: user fees and taxes.  We need net new resources for our transportation network. By net, I mean that it must be more than simply shifting funds from one time period to another, trading on the future and continuing our addiction to debt. By new, I mean that it must be above and beyond funds that are otherwise available from public resources. So the trick is how to increase the amount of transportation investment at the national level without increasing public debt as a percentage of GDP.

Additionally, these new resources must include more than just money to allow for reduced costs and/or higher-quality services from the same level of funds. Put differently, what will we do to enhance operating effectiveness and improve customer services?

What should we stop doing, what should we keep doing and what should we start doing to improve our transportation network?

We should stop politicizing investment decisions at the national level by assaulting both legislative and executive earmarks. The last national transportation bill had one out of every 14 dollars authorized devoted to earmarks. That is not chopped liver. Closely related, we should stop thinking that simply throwing money at the same product, rather than spending money more appropriately, is the best approach.

We should continue to provide states with incentives and flexibility to try market-based approaches to managing and financing the transportation network, just as we do for other non-discretionary goods and services. One re-emerging trend is that states are pursuing public–private partnerships out of fiscal necessity.

We should start to accelerate the deployment of intelligent transportation technology to improve customer service, enhance operating efficiencies and generate additional resources. Today’s transportation infrastructure isn’t just about steel and concrete; it is about cameras, sensors, signals and smart phones. We have to remind folks that we did not get out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones.