Paul Brubaker: Rethinking Transportation Infrastructure Investment for the 21st Century

February 1, 2018

The words “transportation infrastructure” bring to mind roads, bridges, rails, ports, and airports—mostly things that require concrete, asphalt, or rebar. Yet the transportation system of the 21st century increasingly depends on the connective capabilities that can transform the way we use those assets—through computing, vehicle and roadside sensors, and other technology. Such innovations could transform the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, but our decisionmaking channels, enshrined in the structure of government programs and the culture of the transportation industry writ large, reinforce an “infrastructure investment as usual” approach, with little interest in rethinking how we invest to achieve such outcomes as decreasing congestion, opening economic and social opportunities to seniors and the disabled, and saving lives. To the contrary, the transportation bureaucracy—in government and industry alike—tends to treat innovation with caution, with skepticism, and in a manner that guards traditional silos and business models.

President Trump’s much-anticipated infrastructure plan might challenge those conventions and advance a new era of investment focused on achieving transformational benefits where decades and billions of dollars in road and transit projects have failed. But the Trump infrastructure proposal would not be the last word because Congress could contribute to the conversation. Just last week, the House Rules Committee considered allowing earmarks to guide specific infrastructure projects. There are strong arguments supporting the reintroduction of earmarks as a way to build political support for increased levels of infrastructure investment. The legislative process will also allow further conversation and opportunities to introduce process reforms and investment criteria, and the not-for-profit organization I lead, the Alliance for Transportation Innovation,1 suggests three areas of focus in the interest of achieving those ends:

  1. Reform laws, regulations, policies, and practices that delay projects.
  2. Ensure every project has clear and measurable outcomes.
  3. Prioritize projects aimed at introducing innovation, autonomous systems, and new mobility models.

All three of these activities should be carried out concurrently and immediately.  

Reform Laws, Regulations, Policies, and Practices That Delay Projects  

Practitioners, regulators, and observers tend to cite a lack of resources as the main culprit for the ill state of our nation’s infrastructure, and it is hard to argue with the reality that an estimated 60,000 bridges in this country are deemed structurally deficient, transit systems and airports suffer from decades of neglect and deferred maintenance, and our roads are in bad shape, particularly in cold environments. At the same time, traffic crashes are increasing, fatalities are up, transit systems are increasingly unreliable, and congestion is getting worse. A D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card should make nobody proud.

But that is only part of the story, as laws, regulations, policies, and practices force waste into the system. 

A December 2017 New York Times article exposed the staggering per mile costs of two major infrastructure projects managed by the state-run New York City Metropolitan Transit Agency (MTA).2 The Times reported that the per mile cost of the Second Avenue subway came in at $2.5 billion. Worse, the Long Island Railroad East Side Project will cost $3.5 billion per mile. The MTA leadership tried to point to the complexity of building in New York City, but the explanation does not hold water, as these costs are seven times the cost of similarly complex projects in London, Paris, and Singapore. The managers also blamed the need to comply with laws, regulations, policies, labor agreements, and traditional practices. They are not wrong.

Policies for planning, funding, managing, and monitoring transportation projects were well meaning at inception, but years of regulation and standard practice have made the policies difficult and expensive to navigate, often excessively prescriptive, cumbersome, and antiquated in the name of protecting safety, oversight, fairness, and the environment. There are differences of opinion on which processes add value, but there is growing bipartisan recognition of the need for reform. The Obama administration worked with a Republican Congress to include new streamlining requirements in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, the most recent transportation authorization bill, and the Trump administration is implementing those requirements and developing additional proposals to accelerate project delivery.

But the status quo has its defenders, given the billions of dollars directed toward lawyers, design and construction firms, and government agencies with a hand in moving projects forward. This culture is not made up of bad or unskilled people. Rather, success has been defined as being able to navigate complex requirements rather than producing measurable improvements in safety, efficiency, or customer satisfaction. Changing this paradigm means training people to think differently about outcomes, and it means broadening the field to include more diverse skill sets. Agencies and firms long dominated by civil engineers should welcome perspectives from such fields as systems integration, computer and data science, human-centered design, psychology, sociology, and statistics. And the regulations and requirements agencies implement should encourage integrated thinking.

To achieve this objective, we recommend creating a federal transportation innovation commission that focuses on reforming the laws, regulations, policies, and practices that have had a stranglehold on transportation investment and projects that have not served the public well. While key stakeholders and subject-matter experts should be on the commission to help frame the challenges and practices, it is more important to have most commissioners come from outside the traditional transportation ecosystem. The commission should ensure this reform effort is less prescriptive and more focused on creating outcomes. Everything should be on the table, and the commission should focus on creating an expedited approach that establishes key investment criteria.

Ensure Every Project Has Clear and Measurable Outcomes

The primary investment criteria for funding infrastructure investment should be based on creating clear, measurable, and publicly transparent performance outcomes—indicators that measure safety, mobility, and accessibility. Investments should be based on using data to understand movement from origin to destination and take a holistic view across modes in a way that optimizes the safe and efficient movement of people and goods with an eye toward resiliency.

The key performance indicators should be monitored and tracked and be the basis for ensuring public official and contractor accountability. They should also be the basis for determining what performance bonuses should be awarded to officials and contractors. Delivering clear and measurable outcomes as part of meeting baseline costs and schedule and performance goals should be rewarded. Conversely, failing to deliver should have negative consequences. For example, failing to meet the goals could result in a 10 percent salary or fee reduction for the public official or contractor.

To impose incentives, we must empower public officials to manage the elements of their success. They must have access to the tools and resources they need, including the ability to gain access to expertise and support, stable resources and budgets, and qualified contractors who are required to sign up for delivering against the key performance indicators.

Prioritize Projects Aimed at Introducing Innovation, Autonomous Systems, and New Mobility Models

Today’s infrastructure investments should reflect how people and goods can move safety and efficiently in the 21st century and how the future of moving people and goods across all modes will be increasingly connected, electric, and autonomous. As we consider investments to repair bridges, tunnels, and subway systems, we should first understand how the infrastructure is being used and whether we could transform mobility within a community, either through modernizing existing infrastructure or through focusing finite resources elsewhere. Examples for which we would advocate include the following:

Prioritize funding for autonomous transit and rail systems. Transit systems should be encouraged and have incentives to build additional capacity as they modernize their rail systems to include driverless and automated trains that operate based on sensors, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Like systems in Singapore, London, Paris, and even Walt Disney World, these transit systems should invest in new rail, rolling stock, and infrastructure that could be standardized across US systems to save costs. 

Level the playing field for emerging inter- and intracity autonomous surface transportation projects that transcend traditional modes. One such example is Hyperloop for both passengers and freight. We should seek to put American ingenuity and innovation on display as part of our infrastructure plans and not force early demonstrations and safety testing overseas when our transportation bureaucracy cannot find the regulatory path to encourage innovation. Moreover, we should allow public funds to be invested in these innovations even though they do not fit the modal financial stovepipes that jealously guard transportation dollars and default to “no” when it comes to innovation. Our future global competitiveness depends on American innovators having a path to market, just as it was when Robert Fulton commercialized steamship travel.

Encourage the operation of freight and passenger drones and the systems that will enable their safe and efficient operation. We can start by designating areas where we will allow beyond-line-of-sight operation and invest in 21st-century air traffic management systems that can accommodate, manage, and control the autonomous flight of these systems to ensure safe and efficient flight. Many valuable use cases, such as inspection, investigation, and search and rescue, could be enabled by these technologies, but the investments must be made now.

Dedicate right-of-way for the safe operation of autonomous vehicles (AVs). This should include constructing dedicated AV highway lanes, leveraging existing right-of-way on major east-west and north-south interstates, and creating AV-only zones in urban areas. The rules of operating within the AV-only zones would need to be developed, but it is critical that we invest in this infrastructure now.

Deploy advanced vehicle charging infrastructure, as the future of mobility will be autonomous, connected, and electric. And because of rapid advances in battery technology and charging capacity, this infrastructure will need to be periodically upgraded. We must prepare for this future just as aggressively as the Chinese and Europeans or be left behind in the global marketplace.

Lastly, we need to invest in developing our next-generation 5G wireless infrastructure, which promises to usher in a new era of connected innovation limited only by our imaginations. Additionally, we need to invest in satellite communication technology that leverages 5G ground stations to offer long-promised but underdelivered wireless broadband capability to rural and remote areas. At the same time, we will need to support complementary tools, such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, to address cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities that arise as we expand the universe of connected devices and industries. The implications for transportation are enormous and represent that enabling technology for the so-called internet of things and corresponding social benefits in health care, power, education, and mobility.

We are on the cusp of a transformation in mobility that promises to achieve dramatic safety, social, and economic benefits. We must repair, upgrade, and build new infrastructure that accelerates this transformation, but we fear that bureaucracy and cultural inertia will fuel a “business as usual” approach and throw billions of dollars at projects that reflect 20th-century priorities rather than 21st-century possibilities. We have an opportunity to break with the past and invest in projects that will transform mobility and usher in dramatic improvements in the safe and efficient movement of people and goods in a way that is worthy of 21st-century America. We should not miss this opportunity to lead.

Notes

  1. See the website for the Alliance for Transportation Innovation at http://www.ati21.org/.
  2. Brian M. Rosenthal, “The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth,” New York Times, December 28, 2017.

Paul Brubaker is chief executive officer of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation. Previously, he was the research and innovative technology administrator at the US Department of Transportation, chairman of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, deputy sssistant secretary of defense and deputy chief information officer at the US Department of Defense, minority staff director of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Oversight, and a senior executive at several start-ups and larger technology firms, such as Litton PRC, Cisco Systems, and SI International. Brubaker was awarded the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Public Service Medal (the department’s highest civilian honor), the Department of Transportation’s Gold Medal, and the Association for Federal Information Resources Management’s Government Executive of the Year award. He was also twice named to the Federal 100. Brubaker holds a BA from Youngstown State University and an MPA from Kent State University.