Where to spend $1Trillion Infrastructure Dollars

We are living with rapidly accelerating unintended consequences that are making our infrastructure unprepared for demands never imagined just 30 years ago.

As shifts happen, too often planners build on top of a system that no longer works at all, designing for the needs of the past, not the future. As our government contemplates much needed funds for upgrading our infrastructure, it is time to  examine the changes that are changing American's lives and needs, as those are the keys to what the future will look like. 

Move to cities​The biggest shift has been the movement of people back into cities. 

Much of how we think of our infrastructure was conceived during Dwight D. Eisenhower's Presidency in the 50s, when the push to create a national highway system encouraged a massive movement out of cities and into the suburbs where shopping malls, along with their huge parking lots, grew like mushrooms. Supported by returning World War II veterans and a country flush with industries built to support allies in that war, this was the era of teenyboppers not hackers, of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour in black and white, Drive-In movie theaters, the typewriter and huge rear fins on cars. The car was the symbol of America, and the American car was big and bold. It was an age that didn't imagine US made cars to be owned by Japanese automakers, or iPads and computers, America's Got Talent and Survivor, or Amazon, Google and Wal-Mart. That change has a major impact on where, and how, we spend infrastructure dollars.

  • 68 years after Ike, 86% of us live in cities, where transportation problems pose significant economic barriers for business and residents.
  • Our failing water infrastructure is affecting all Americans, as water losses raise costs and pollution leaks into our waterways. 
  • The 14% of us who live in rural areas are struggling to keep up in a wired world where the internet and smart phones are essential.

As we take a very broad look at our future, it is clear that our infrastructure is a national problem that must engage public and private funds, remake our regulatory structure to streamline multiple and redundant approvals, and engage in a twenty to thirty year long term plan. Without some certainty, the private sector is not going to invest in such projects, and we will increasingly face structural disasters.

Managing Congested City Streets

Even as urban dwellers are owning fewer and fewer cars, city congestion is still a major problem. Over $78 billion a year is lost in wasted time and fuel costs. Congestion is also impacted by the reality that cars and trucks do not actually pay the full cost for their vehicle use. They pay for their vehicle operating and maintenance costs, along with the costs of the car, their own insurance, fuel and their own travel time along with schedule delays. They do not pay for the full costs of accidents on streets, government services needed to keep cars registered and policed, and environmental externalities such as air and noise pollution. Most of all, they do not pay for the cost of building and maintaining roadways or for the full costs of parking in garages and on city streets.  

For some, the future of cities needs to begin to take into account the actual costs to the public, of vehicles on our roadways. Since vehicles are subsidized, the public can look to choices about where they would like those subsidies to go. There are alternatives.

Congestion Pricing

Such pricing would charge cars for the full public expenditure through a digital system  like EZ Pass--could be the 'first best' solution to alleviate public costs, it has not been popular in the US, having recently been defeated by the State of New York for the city of New York. 

Public Transit Pricing:

Traditionally, public transport has created some public outrage that it may not be used by some individuals who do not want to pay. Most public transport systems do not collect enough revenue to cover all their costs. Pricing public transit fair so that they are competitive with the subsidized costs of driving would encourage car users to voluntarily switch to bus and rail. Such actions would then make public transportation gradually more competitive as more people use the systems. 

A study by the US Transportation Agency evaluates the costs of new transit funding as well as the benefits accruing to businesses, residents and communities. They estimate that every new transit vehicle requires an expenditure of $1.5 million. The chart at the left shows the existing US Transportation budget expenditures for Transit, Aviation and Highways in green. The chart then compares current costs with an annual expenditure in public transit — along with the benefits — stretched over a 20 year time period. What such a plan requires is both political will and commitment to long term planning.

IoT: The Internet of things

There are currently important improvements in congestion, such as traffic lights that change for oncoming emergency vehicles and roadway signs that warn of coming grid lock. Buses have smartphone apps that let commuters know where they are, and when they will arrive at the bus stop. Newer cars can self park and avoid accidents, and many cities are installing smart applications so that drivers can quickly find empty parking meters, avoiding driving around for blocks looking for spaces. As cities innovate with new apps, they analyze the efficiency and fiscal impact which helps other cities review the case for investments. A national center might help spread adoption to more cities, clearing roads and diverting trucks to times when streets are less crowded.

Rail, High Speed Rail

The largest cuts to the current budget come at the expense of rail and the office of the Secretary. The latter includes the TIGER funds that helped fix roadways under President Obama's ARRA funds. As for public transit, as earlier reported in this magazine, President Trump's transportation budget had as a goal 'priming the pump' with federal dollars to attract private investment. California, in particular, has been hoping for help in creating a high speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as upgrading the commuter rail from San Francisco to San Jose.

The recent accidents, many of which are considered to be the fault of lack of funding for mandatory safety systems, has led many to worry about the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington DC. Amtrak's share of passenger traffic between New York City and Boston has grown from 20% to 54% since 2001, and 75% of public-transport travelers between New York City and Washington D.C., go by train. This is in addition to New Jersey Transport and others who use Amtrak rails to transport millions of people weekly, as well as billions of pounds of goods that travel the railways nationally every day.

Such traffic keeps people off the roads, and as important, makes trucking more efficient. Delays, accidents and overcrowding on our railways is a national disgrace that dismays people from other countries that expect public transport to reliable, clean and efficient. 

Water Safety

Water can heal or harm, as we found out recently when poor decision poisoned and even killed residents of Flint Michigan. People are so fearful of their own water quality that they would rather buy bottles of water in plastic than drink from their own faucets.  While such alarm is as much due to marketing by water companies as reality, our water quality is affected by storms and by pollution upstream of sewage treatment plants.

Storm Water Runoff

Large rainfall can flood combined city sewage and storm systems, causing organic pollutants to flow into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans. This process makes flooding much worse, as it pollutes the water that is running in the streets and into homes and businesses. The problem is exacerbated by 'impervious' surfaces, such as streets and parking lots, that collect large pools of water which then drench city systems. Solutions involve creating ways for water to be captured, to make surfaces porous so that water does not collect, to reduce the size of impermeable surfaces by reducing the size of parking lots and adding green areas, and by separating the two systems so that sewage cannot be mixed with runoff.  Regulations along with tax relief for companies that invest in storm water solutions have helped. But large scale plans to separate aging city systems is going to need a more focused, and national approach. 

Upstream Pollutants

Pollutants in rivers are a huge problem for municipal sewage treatment plants. Innovations in water treatment along with stopping such pollution at the source is a long term project that is vital to protecting what has been our national pride in our clean water. 

Water Scarcity

Droughts have been with us for a long time. The Dust Bowl of the 40s, the biggest drought in our history, destroyed many farms and towns. However, dealing with water scarcity has become a more pressing problem as populations have grown. In some agricultural communities, the water stress is so high that towns are paying farmers for their water rights, which affects how much food they can grow.

Our aging water infrastructure is a $1 trillion dollar problem, with 1.6 million miles of pipes that are over 45 years old, according to industry estimates. Six hundred towns have cast iron pipes that are over 100 years old, and our capital -- Washington DC -- has wooden pipes left over from its founding. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology​ estimates that we loose 6 billion gallons of water every day from water main breaks and leaks. Residential consumers alone account for enough water loss to fill 40 million swimming pools or 20 billion bathtubs from leaking faucets, sprinklers and toilets.  Two powerful industries, plastic and iron, are locked in a lobbying war over the estimated $300 billion fund that local governments will spend on water and sewer pipes over the next decade. Cash strapped municipalities and rate payers are going to be responsible for fixing a problem that affects our nations health.

Broadband, the Rural Dilemma

Broadband, including high speed internet and cellular phones, is now considered a utility by many countries. Many of our large cities are looking at networks that would be free for residents. Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and other local shops now carry high-speed internet for customers. Yet 62% of our rural communities have less than 75% cable access, while only 38% have between close to 100% access. Even high speed and 'smart' phones are less available in rural areas. The importance of this issue was highlighted by Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Resenworcel in her dissenting statement to an FCC report.

"I believe the future belongs to the connected. ... No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st century success. ... Today there are 24 million Americans without access to broadband. There are 19 million Americans in rural areas who lack the ability to access high-speed services at home. There are 2 million school-aged children who are falling into the Homework Gap because they do not have the broadband at home they need for nightly schoolwork. Ask any one of them if they think the deployment of the most essential digital age infrastructure is reasonable and timely and you will get a resounding 'No.'"

Engaging Public Investment

The current 10 year plan allocates 25% of the budget to the 14% living in rural areas. That may — or may not — be a sound use of resources. In the short and long term, all of our infrastructure issues will become more urgent as changes in populations and climate stress public works, affecting roads and bridges along with water and above ground wiring for energy and broadband.

In the end, the task is not going to be done without a significant input from the private sector. 

Such funding will only come as public policies create rational incentives that encourage investment. One good step by the current administration is to work towards streamlining the approval process for building and infrastructure projects. Such policies should help to combine multiple permitting into a single process, and insure that developers know all the requirements before the start of a project. The latter minimizes the surprises that make a projects financially unstable. If we are to use public funds to ‘jump start’ private investment, policies must create transparency about the objectives, regulatory process, timelines for incentives and future intent. Without such improvements, we risk falling behind other developed countries.