September 27, 2017
Column | outbound

Money alone won't solve our infrastructure woes

A steady and predictable source funding will help, but there are other steps we can take to get our infrastructure repairs back on track.

By Mitch Mac Donald

President Donald Trump, a man who always has a lot to say, has been promoting a plan to spend $1 trillion (yes, that's trillion with a "T") to get our nation's badly crumbling infrastructure into 21st century shape. As with so many proposals bandied about by the current administration, time will tell whether Trump will actually translate his words into action.

The current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is not the first tenant in recent memory who has pledged to fix the roads and bridges that form the backbone of the U.S. transportation system and serve as the nation's central artery for commerce. Anyone remember all those "shovel ready" projects Trump's predecessor talked about but that never saw the light of day?

So, as we wait to see if anything will come from all the talk, it was refreshing to review a policy brief on infrastructure from the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board (CED). The CED, founded in 1942, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization that in its words, "delivers research, analysis, and reasoned solutions to our nation's most critical issues." CED's work is grounded on seven core principles: sustainable capitalism, long-term economic growth, efficient fiscal and regulatory policy, competitive and open markets, a globally competitive workforce, equal economic opportunity, and nonpartisanship in the nation's interest. What's not to like, right?

Titled Fixing America's Roads & Bridges: The Path Forward, the CED report pulls no punches. "Although America's network of roads, bridges, and tunnels is critical to the economy and American quality of life, it has been poorly maintained for decades," the authors write. That history of deferred maintenance, taken together with what they describe as "a growing gap between investment needs and available funds," threatens our collective access to a safe, reliable transportation network, they warn.

What's particularly notable about the study is its thoughtful analysis of how the U.S.—a nation that once boasted the world's best surface transportation system—ended up in this plight. As the authors make clear, money alone didn't cause the problem and money alone won't fix it. Factors like poor project selection, the politicization of transportation spending, and slipshod financial analysis have played into it as well. These challenges, too, must be addressed if we hope to return our highways and bridges to a state of good repair.

As part of its brief, the group offered recommendations for fixing America's infrastructure. What follows is a summary of those suggestions:

  • Encourage greater private-sector participation in road building and maintenance. Among other benefits, increased private-sector participation would likely mean faster project completion because the risk of delay is transferred to private partners through contractual penalties and rewards.
  • Improve project selection and foster "modal coordination" across systems. Public officials should consider road, bridge, and other modal investment decisions as part of the larger transportation network and not as standalone projects. Politics, not system needs, often drive project selection, which increases costs.
  • Streamline regulatory review and permitting at all levels. Inefficient regulatory review processes often cause long delays and substantially increase project costs.
  • Invest in technology. Driverless and increasingly autonomous cars, for example, will require modernized roads. Furthermore, greater use of roadbed sensors to communicate with vehicles, and integration of real-time traffic and weather alerts, should be the norm, not the exception.
  • Move toward user fees to fund roads and bridges. This includes increasing reliance on mileage-based user fees, which could fluctuate based on the demand for road space at particular times of day. Greater use of such fees would provide an equitable, reliable revenue source to cover operational and maintenance costs.
  • Inform and educate the public. Many Americans are understandably unfamiliar with the complexities of infrastructure funding and believe that their tax dollars already adequately fund roads and bridges. Leaders in both the public and private sectors should work together and communicate the importance of a strong surface transportation system directly to the public to mobilize their interest and support for infrastructure that is second to none.

Read the full CED report.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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