Why not enact an ‘intelligent’ national infrastructure plan?

June 19, 2012

There are about 1 billion cars on the world’s roads today. By mid-century, forecasts have that number climbing to 4 billion. Meanwhile, Congress is mired in a debate over whether to pass a new highway bill. Senator Barbara Boxer, a chief negotiator of the pending bill, lamented recently that she was “embarrassed for the people of this country” that this measure had not been enacted. After all, she said, passing highway bills used to be as popular and as important as “motherhood and apple pie.”

As with all previous highway bills, proponents generally wrap their arguments in projections for new jobs, or rhetoric that links fresh infrastructure spending to unclogging the arteries of commerce. For the president, a highway bill fits his campaign theme of getting America back to work. In a recent speech in Cleveland, the president issued a call to “rebuild America” and to do “some nation-building here at home.” The main obstacle remains how to pay for new spending and investment.

Flashback to 1998 and 2005: Those were the last years Washington enacted “highway bills,” or measures to reauthorize federal infrastructure spending programs. Now that the economy is sputtering in 2012, many would like to see Congress pull a page from the playbooks of those years. The taxpayer price tags for the ’98 and ’05 multiyear highway bills were $218 billion and $286 billion, respectively. Count President Obama as part of today’s infrastructure-stimulus choir, as he has proposed a $556 billion six-year bill.

Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser argues: “America’s infrastructure needs intelligent reform, not floods of extra financing or quixotic dreams of new moon adventures or high-speed railways to nowhere.”

U.S. policymakers would be wise to take a moment this summer to reflect on whether the national strategy they are contemplating for infrastructure investment properly prioritizes performance and leverages technology.

Federal and state spending on transportation has grown faster than inflation for decades, yet the broader system’s performance has continued to deteriorate. The future of infrastructure in the U.S. is about achieving system performance – like attacking problems such as road congestion – rather than always adding raw capacity.

Over the last five or so years, an alternative vision for the future of infrastructure has unfolded, one that views travelers as customers who prioritize an efficient commute and a transportation system that’s safe. This recast framework has been enabled, in part, by the emergence of new tools to measure travelers’ objectives and system deficiencies. Private investment is also starting to flow to develop the new underlying technologies and creative new business models.

While the infrastructure grid has long had cameras to help spot accidents causing delays, the pervasiveness of smartphones, new GPS technologies and other sensors (those in and above ground) has exponentially added to the data pool.

One of the top complaints from driving customers is congestion, traffic delays and overly long commutes. New startups are developing applications to help cities do everything from identifying potholes faster to spotting in almost real time the fender bender that is slowing down traffic. The fresh focus on performance has also led to straightforward tech ideas like flexible screens that can be erected quickly at the scene of an accident to stop the rubbernecking by nearby travelers that causes congestion.

New companies like SFPark, Parkmobile and Streetline are seeking to transform the conventional parking meter. These companies utilize apps, linking data from wireless sensors (either embedded or tacked onto the parking spot pavement), to match parking availability with consumer location and demand.

With the explosion of data in and around our transportation infrastructure, large companies have also set their sights on developing analytical platforms for cities and other urban planners. Cisco’s “Smart + Connected Communities” initiative and IMB’s “Smarter Cities” visions are leading the way. The tagline for Smarter Cities lays out the broader premise: “that the world is becoming more interconnected, instrumented, and intelligent, and this constitutes an opportunity for new savings, efficiency, and possibility for progress.”

Over the last couple of years IBM helped design the first ever, citywide clearinghouse for infrastructure data in Brazil, called the Operations Center of the City of Rio. What makes this center unique is that it has integrated practically all of the city’s major information or response-related departments and agencies so that there is “a holistic view” of how the city is functioning or performing in real time, 365 days a year.

As the New York Times reported in a profile on the Rio center earlier this year, these platforms are being utilized not only by cities but also by smaller organizations like the Miami Dolphins, which wants to more efficiently manage the traffic around its new stadium. Schools are another good example. Everyday Solutions, a relatively new startup, provides a Web-based utility that monitors travel times and ridership rates and helps parents track the school bus their kids are on. (For more examples, check out Fast Company’s top 10 list of most innovative companies in transportation.)

Academia is also advancing both tech research and deployment: Check out Carnegie Mellon’s Traffic21 and Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, or SMART.

The units of transportation are facing a frontier of change that will see cars, trucks and buses transformed into intelligent vehicles. Earlier this year at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ford Motor Co executive Bill Ford shared his “Blueprint for Mobility”, which lays out how transportation can change over the next decade. The auto company is investing in platforms that take advantage of the increasing number of sensors in and around vehicles as well as vehicle-to-vehicle communication initiatives, including accident warning or prevention systems.

Sebastian Thrun’s vision for self-driving, or “semiautonomous,” cars has the potential to improve mobility, and more important, safety. Over the last 10 years, more than 350,000 people have lost their lives on American roads. Thrun and his colleagues at Google X Lab have developed working prototypes that can travel thousands of miles without a driver behind the wheel. The cars can travel on highways, merge at high speeds and navigate city streets, eliminating the thousands of little decisions that drivers make that contribute to congestion and accidents. The self-driving car, with its ability to communicate with other vehicles and utilize precision technology, offers the potential to circumvent many of these problems.

Given that this sector is just starting to sprout up on its own, perhaps the federal government should stay on the sidelines in the near term to avoid stifling innovation. Yet just last year Google helped Nevada draft the nation’s first state law to allow self-driving cars on its roads (with preset conditions like requiring human co-pilots).

For Bill Ford, the opportunities on the more immediate horizon are quite clear. Cars could become “a billion computing devices” or “rolling collections of sensors” and made part of one large data network to “advance mobility, reduce congestion, and improve safety.” Sure, the benefits might be realized more quickly with the right help from the government. But if the value proposition exists and infrastructure customers start to demand better performance, this new vision may already be inevitable.


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A big part of the problem is still cars and buses having to share the roads with trucks. Bimodal is a good start, but far too many local streets and bridges are being pulverized by trucks when a fully integrated commercial rail system can shift much of the burden. Idle time not only wastes energy and money, but adds to carbon and particulate emissions for no economic gain.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

Yes, the United States needs to invest in it’s citizen’s future and not GIVE inevitable eventual control of crucial links in America’s road system to entities that efficiently build TOLL ROADS (often foreign corporations). Our road system is as essential to our economic future as it would be to American defense in time of war.

That said, given that our present level of spending is unsustainable, our elected representatives should overturn such present legislation, rules and regulations as have long increased the costs of “public works” by requiring successful bidders to pay UNION LABOR RATES. America can no longer afford to give the interests of union members precedence over the majority of non-union taxpayers.

America should not try to do everything at once that needs doing. There’s a LOT that is NOT “shovel ready”. Priorities should consider greatest immediate “bang for the buck” (cars moved, miles saved, time saved, ongoing repairs eliminated.

Outdated legislation, rules and regulations as has had the effect of mandating all labor bid and paid at UNION SCALE should be eliminated by any and all means IN ADVANCE. “We, the people” will trust our government with more revenue ONLY when it demonstrates itself capable. There remains a “culture” of traditional and enduring unnecessary waste. The expansion and modernization of our infrastructure MUST be done with efficiency, however horrific that may appear to the administering governmental bureaucracies.

Bureaucracies and unions judge their success by the number on the payroll and the amount of money flowing. They remind me of the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. One is “most” EFFICIENT by doing more things. One is EFFECTIVE by advancing an adopted goal further by investing available resources of time and money where each does the most good, i.e. doing the RIGHT things so as to minimize time, expense and public inconvenience.

It is a simple fact that two men cannot dig a post hole twice as fast, and nine women cannot have a baby in one month. Bureaucracies are traditionally incapable of understanding such basics. That’s why on just about every public works project you see two or more people watching for every one actually working. “We, the people” are mad as h ell, and we’re not going to take it [pay for it] any more!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

It’s always amazed me that railroad tracks stand idle 99% of the time. We know that railroads are much more energy efficient than road transportation yet trucks are favored in many cases for even long haul freight.
The only thing I can figure is that railroad routing, and transfering to trucks, must be very inefficient.
In todays information age, can’t we standardize and automate this system?
Or am I missing something?

Posted by BJacobian | Report as abusive

This will require the type of “government spending”, that would make the Republicans in Congress feel very queasy. Many of them already cringe at infrastructure spending, particularly involving high-speed rail lines.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

Not a word about climate change. How’s all this grand new infrastructure gonna hold up under the stress of episodic weather calamities — torrential floods, long and sever heat and freezing spells? Clearly, it’s not. We need to reduce the number of miles of roads that we have to maintain or we will go broke regardless of the technology. People need to work at home more often, use public transit more often, and pay the true cost of the distribution of goods. Anything else is just icing on the cake of delusion we enjoy today.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

To OneOfTheSheep,
Your statement: ” “We, the people” will trust our government with more revenue ONLY when it demonstrates itself capable.” is a re-statement of “Starve-the-Beast”.

I would ask you to reconsider how this philosophy has worked out for the last 30 years, and where it will ultimately lead if we coninue it.

I have learned to prefer Eisenhower’s strategy of balancing the budget first (regardless of top tax rates),
and then working hard to reduce taxes within that requirement.
There is no doubt that Ike was the more fiscally conservative in that he actually did balance budgets, reduced debt/GDP, and put the country on a sustainable financial path.
As to “Bureaucracies”. After having worked in private industry for 25 years, I can tell you that government has no monopoly on bureaucracy or inefficiency.

Posted by BJacobian | Report as abusive

Article way too long.

Yes, the United States needs an intelligent infrastructure plan, any fool should know that. Politicians never do anything intelligent, and voters are no help. Both are dumb as rocks.

Both are knee jerk reactors.

Help is available for those willing to ask and accept.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

SFPark is NOT a company. It is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency working with many companies.

Posted by RickRees | Report as abusive


So you then advocate that taxpayers give our apparently mindless and clueless federal bureaucracies more revenue before they have shown themselves able to properly prioritize that which they have? Considering the mind boggling amount of taxpayer funds they increasingly shovel out year after year when Congress increases the debt limit, is this not continuing to do the same things and expecting different results?

In my opinion such is contrary to improving a situation the last thirty years have shown to be increasingly unsustainable. Your “philisophy” is not a “solution” but excuses for continuing failure(s), but we agree that the budget MUST be balanced sooner or later. There must first be agreement as to what should be in such “budget” before a debate can commence as to how much goes where. The journey of a thousand miles still begins with a single step, but that step must be FORWARD!

We need to debate and find majority consensus as to what services presently available governmental revenues can sustain for it’s taxpayers. Let’s call these “needs”. Each political party should have it’s own list of these, and the party “in power” should thus “define” what the government MUST do.

Then,, and ONLY then, does the discussion move to the “wants”…those things said government WANTS to do, i.e. that taxpayers will WILLINGLY pay “more” for.

YOU propose instead to increase tax revenues to throw into the same bottomless pit of a government culture that knows not how to prioritize. Good luck with that. On this subject I’m a pessimist; and believe every optimist a myopic fool.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

It’s not a choice between intelligent systems and new capcity. Most of the funding in the previous transportation authorization acts is going to maintain the existing transportation system. The problem is that we aren’t investing enough to even take care of the infrastructure built by previous generations. It’s getting old and wearing out. We need to devote a higher percentage of our GDP to infrastructure as other countries are doing.

Posted by FutureVision | Report as abusive

Building more infrastructure for automobiles, regardless of how “smart” or “intelligent” is a supremely DUMB idea.

The auto-centric culture that developed in the United States has created an unsustainable mess. It views land as a consumable and has created unwalkable, senseless sprawl. It facilitated subprime and the financial crisis. It has made us dependent upon petro-states and all the militarism to defend supplied and unsavory kingdoms.

IMO, “smart” or “intelligent” automobile-centric infrastructure is simply a program for large corporation to sell hardware and services to bankrupt governments and extract rents from the public.

It is more business as usual.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive


You’re entitled (and welcome) to your opinion, but it’s clear that you neither respect nor appreciate the standard of living the “auto-centric culture…in the United States” has made possible. Americans have voted with their feet and dollars FOR individual and personally owned private transportation.

They have chosen time and again NOT TO RELY on Busses, carpools, Light Rail or Taxies to “get around”. Of those who use these options for a daily commute, most still want cars for “everything else”. although many who may DON’T RELY.

The selling of hardware and services is how ALL the “business of America” is done, whether by individuals, sole proprietors, Partnerships, LLCs, or corporations (large and small). It’s called Capitalism.

Until a superior system emerges that similarly increases the size of the “economic pie”, GET USED TO IT or move to Europe, South America, Africa, the middle east , Russia, etc. Good luck with that!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

You make my point for me.
The results of the last 30 years (Reaganomics, Starve-the-Beast) is unsustainable.
We cannot wait for a “consensus” on what government services should be provided, since such consensus will never be achieved.
All the while we wait,the country sinks further into debt.
This has all been tried before and the verdict is in.
Eisenhower believed in balancing the budgets FIRST with high top tax rates, then reducing tax rates after we showed a sustainable path. This he achieved.
Reagan believed (and the current GOP still does) that we should reduce tax rates to Starve-the-Beast to force lower spending, and supposedly, balanced budgets.
This strategy has failed miserably, both in balancing the budgets, and in Trickling-Down.
What else do you want me to say?
That we should continue trying it for another 30 years?
It’s time to lose the idealogy and start looking at facts.

Posted by BJacobian | Report as abusive

I agree with you on the advantages, and preference by the people of the auto-centric culture.
But I think you are a bit harsh on @upstarter.
The size of the economic pie has been increased by government involved programs such as the transcontinental railroads, the Interstate Highway system, rural electrification etc.
Our economic system is, and should be, a cooperation between private and public sectors.
As they say, if you want a true free market system, free from government controls and protections, move to Somalia.

Posted by BJacobian | Report as abusive

This is Agenda 21 central planning which should be rejected.

Name change “Sustainable Communities” then to “Economic Resilience” being imposed by HUD/DOT/EPA grants.

Names are different but program is the same old SOVIET nonsense all over the country.

Posted by NHampshire | Report as abusive