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Rethinking Transportation in America
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ONC Editorial

Jan 14, 2023

Our transportation infrastructure needs significant improvement. How can we address the issue? (This proposal is featured in ONC's first book, Let's Fix America. The opinions expressed in this proposal represent the opinions and compromises of the authors.)

Big Picture:

The fabric of infrastructure in America is, both metaphorically and physically, crumbling. Years of neglect by policymakers, constituents and businesses have produced collapsing roads and bridges, outdated and hazardous buildings, and facilities in critical conditions across the country. The Biden Administration’s recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has provided some much-needed funding, but more work still needs to be done. Compromised infrastructure systems harm the health and economy of the country. It is time to prioritize the physical network on which America functions.

 

  • Graphic From: "Today's Infrastructure Improvement Will Drive Tomorrow's Economy." Bureau of Economic Analysis. Ced.org. 8 Sept. 2020.
    This figure illustrates the changes in government investment in infrastructure as a share of GDP since the 1960s. This number is measurably decreasing. 

Operative Definitions:

  1. Transport infrastructure: The framework that supports America’s transportation system, which includes but is not limited to roads, railways, ports and airports.
  2. Private sector: The part of the economy owned by private groups (usually as a means of enterprise for profit), rather than by the state.
  3. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE): Founded in 1852 and headquartered in Virginia, the first national-level society of engineers and the oldest professional society of engineers to date.
  4. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): The U.S. federal cabinet department whose primary concern is transportation. The DOT was established in 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
  5. Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE): Grant program which provides unique opportunities for the DOT to invest in infrastructure while expanding access to transportation across the country.
  6. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Infrastructure package whose provisions were related to specified programs within the Department of Transportation. It was passed in November 2021 and signed into law by President Joe Biden.
  7. Value Capture: A kind of public financing that uses a part of the land value created by public infrastructure for future investments.

Important Facts and Statistics:

  1. The ASCE calculates that, by 2025, the U.S. will need to spend approximately $4.5 trillion to repair the country’s roads, bridges, dams and other forms of infrastructure. In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed, allocating $1.2 trillion to infrastructure projects. This is a great start, but it won’t be enough, according to ASCE’s calculations.
  2. Over one-third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
  3. Approximately one-third of all highway fatalities in America can be attributed to road conditions of poor quality, obsolete road designs or roadside hazards.

Four-Point Plan:

(1) Revamp federal and state funding programs. Dedicate $220 billion per year for 15 years to repair the country’s bridges, tunnels and highways. This money will come out of the government’s defense budget because crumbling infrastructure is a threat to national security in cases of invasion or insurgency. This means that the Army Corps of Engineers will work alongside the private sector in order to rebuild domestic infrastructure. Funding will go to state transportation departments, except when federal routes are involved. Mandate that states present comprehensive repair plans before receiving these funds.

(2) Leverage the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card in legislative decisions. These report cards will determine when and how to best spend federal funds. This organization stands at the forefront of civil engineering. As longtime advocates for the effectiveness of our nation's infrastructure, members of the ASCE examine current infrastructure models and conditions and provide critiques and recommendations on future projects.

(3) Improve funding models. In order to better finance the nation’s infrastructure assets, policymakers should generate sustainable revenues with fair-usage charges and employ value capture strategies. Further, should the price of gas decline significantly from what it is as of May 2022, states should raise their gas taxes to improve infrastructure funding. Most states have not increased their gas tax rates in over a decade, resulting in losses of billions in transportation revenue. Should circumstances come to permit, gas taxes should be raised from 18.4 cents per gallon to 33.4 cents per gallon, which would produce an estimated $291 billion in revenue between 2023 and 2031.

(4) Give Amtrak a much-needed makeover. The railroad service will cut costly, long-distance routes and, instead, prioritize popular, shorter routes with better financial returns. This will save $233 million annually (based on federal spending in 2018), which will be used to support RAISE in cities that lose Amtrak services as a result of the implementation of these changes.

Why This Initiative is Important:

In August 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis collapsed due to inadequate load capacity and design errors. As a result, 13 people lost their lives, and 145 people, including 22 children, were injured. More recently, in September 2021, an Amtrak passenger train carrying 154 passengers derailed west of Joplin, Montana on its way to Portland, Oregon. Consequently, 50 people were injured, and 3 were killed. While investigations are ongoing, rail experts suspect problems with the tracks themselves or with the wheels of the passenger train are to blame for this incident, as it has been confirmed that the train was traveling within the speed limit for the given area. These crumbling bridges, decaying roads and aging railway systems have taken a serious toll on human life. The DOT calculates that poor road designs and conditions influence approximately 14,000 highway fatalities every year. These design and condition flaws have economic effects as well. The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that injuries associated with poor road conditions cost at least $11.4 billion in 2013. It is only fair to conclude that, while the cost of repairing our nation’s physical infrastructure is high, it is meager in comparison to the cost of experiencing further losses.

Economic Impact (From Our Student Economist Team):

Increases in consumer spending will be matched by the savings provided by reduced traffic congestion and increased business growth, productivity and shipping revenue. Estimated effect on the annual federal deficit: $5.62 billion.

Final Thought for Now:

“Every citizen agrees with me that the need to bring our roads and streets up-to-date is urgent. The longer we wait, the greater the cost will be.” - Harry Truman

Acknowledgments:

The following student(s) worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Armin Jorgenson, University of California, San Diego; Joshua Ramos, Texas Wesleyan University; Courtney Clark, Point Park University; Christian Williams, George Washington University.

The following individuals worked with our student interns and contributed expertise, wisdom and moral support in the development of this proposal:

  1. Nicholas Maldarelli: Transit Route Planner, (confidential place of work).
  2. Wade Killefer: Co-founder, KFA Architects. Santa Monica, CA.
  3. Jessie O’Malley Solis: Program Manager, Transit Oriented Development Program, VTA (Valley Transportation Authority). San Jose, CA.
  4. Tamiko Percell: Transportation Planner in Transit Planning & Capital Development, VTA (Valley Transportation Authority, San Jose, CA.

Note: Not all participants agree with every aspect of this proposal. To arrive at a proposal that takes multiple views into account requires compromise and difficult decisions. 

Sources:

"Condition of the America’s Infrastructure in Modern Days." IvyPanda, 20 Aug. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/americas-infrastructure/.

Estevão, Marcello. “Making Infrastructure Investment More Attractive to Private Capital.” International Banker, 1 Oct. 2018, internationalbanker.com/finance/makinginfrastructure-investment-more-attractive-to-private-capital/.

“How Do Long Distance Trains Perform Financially?” AMTRAK, 2019 www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/public/documents/corporate/position-papers/white-paper-amtrak-long-distance-financial-performance.pdf.

Hussain, Ali Abid, et al. “Unlocking Private-Sector Financing in Emerging-Markets Infrastructure.” McKinsey & Company, 15 Oct. 2020, www.mckinsey.com/industries/private-equityand-principal-investors/our-insights/unlocking-private-sector-financing-in-emergingmarkets infrastructure#.

Marshall, Aarian. “It's Not Just Clean Air: Electric Cars Can Save the US Billions.” WIRED, 27 Oct. 2016, wired.com/2016/10/not-just-clean-air-electric-cars-can-save-us-billions.

Palicz, Mike. “New Gas Tax Hike in Shuster’s HTF Plan.” Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Tax Reform, 24 Aug. 2018, https://www.atr.org/new-gas-tax-hike-shusters-htfplan/.

“Public Transit New Starts Program: Issues and Options for Congress.” Congressional Research Service, 5 Oct. 2010, www.everycrsreport.com/reports/R41442.html.

Schmitt, Angie. “Why We Need a Bus Shelter at Every Stop.” Street Blog USA, 1 Oct. 2018, usa.streetsblog.org/2018/10/01/opinion-we-should-put-a-bus-shelter-at-every-stop-inamerica/.

Stein, Jeff, et al. “Mnuchin and Top Democrat Step up Infrastructure Talks, but Some White House Officials Are Skeptical.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Feb. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/01/30/mnuchin-top-democratstep-up-infrastructure-talks-some-white-house-officials-are-skeptical/.

“U.S. Vehicle Registration Statistics.” Hedges & Company, 2019. hedgescompany.com/automotivemarket-research-statistics/auto-mailing-lists-and-marketing/.

“Value Capture: Capitalizing on the Value Created by Transportation.” U.S. Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration.

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