Viewpoints

Getting the most out of Trump’s – or anyone else’s – infrastructure plan

By Ananth Prasad

President Trump has vowed to invest as much as $1 trillion dollars to restore or upgrade our crumbling infrastructure coast to coast. This is a promising development, especially since it comes as many states and municipalities have themselves recently committed to major transportation investments. In the November election, voters in 22 states approved ballot measures that will provide $203 billion in funding extensions and new revenue for state and local transportation projects.

With a powerful one-two punch of federal dollars and state or local dollars, America can reposition its transportation infrastructure for the future. And, yet, there is one major challenge: spending money in the right ways.

We must rethink our transportation priorities and approaches so that new spending allows us to leapfrog to a new level of performance.

Here are just a few ideas for ensuring that America achieves the greatest benefit from our transportation spending in the coming years:


Prioritize projects transparently
When we’re spending large amounts of public money on transportation, it’s critical that we preserve taxpayers’ trust. One way we do this is by removing politics from the equation when determining which projects to prioritize. Virginia’s “Smart Scale” program is one example of how a data-driven scoring model can serve to standardize and rationalize the decision-making process. The program scores projects based on how well they ease congestion, improve economic development, provide access to jobs, enhance safety and environmental sustainability, and efficiently use land.

 

Deliver projects more efficiently
Many states now allow the use of a design-build method for delivering large, complex transportation projects. Design-build brings together designers and contractors at a project’s beginning, under a single contract, which can spur innovation, gain economies of scale, accelerate the timeline, and seize other opportunities to deliver the project at a significantly lower cost than offered by the traditional design-bid-build method. By adopting design-build for more projects, and even smaller projects, we can get more transportation improvements for the dollars we invest.


Innovate before we construct 
Before we take steps to widen highways to deal with congestion, we should consider other techniques that can be more cost efficient. For example, in urban areas where congestion builds quickly due to closely spaced on-ramps, planners can consider a technique called ramp metering, which uses traffic lights to adjust the flow of vehicles entering the highway. Another approach is to temporarily allow the use of breakdown lanes for travel, using signage to notify drivers when these lanes are open for traffic. The net effect of these techniques is to increase capacity during times of greatest demand, without building new lanes that are costly to construct and maintain – and which are often unnecessary beyond the rush hour.


Advance user-centered mobility 
Technology is revolutionizing virtually every aspect of travel, from digital maps for planning trips, to GPS guidance, to digital tickets for trains and subways, to ride sharing. We need to invest in strategies and technologies that erase the seams between modes, so travelers can assess and activate their mobility options easily. Ideally, a person should be able to plan a trip, see travel time and costs, purchase relevant fares for public transportation, and hail a ride – all before heading for the shower.

We can expect significant debate as our leaders seek agreement on a range of transportation-related policy issues surrounding rural-versus-urban project prioritization, public transit investments, regulatory issues and, of course, the best ways to fund the work at the federal level. Only by making a long-term commitment can we build the infrastructure to compete on the global stage and deliver value every day for everyday Americans.

 

Ananth Prasad, PE, is senior vice president and leads the transportation practice for HNTB Corporation, an infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors. He has over 24 years in the industry, including 22 years with the Florida Department of Transportation. 

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