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Panel Discussion: How Can We Improve U.S. Transportation Infrastructure?

Todd Danielson on February 10, 2019 - in Articles, Feature, Featured


The title question for this feature has been discussed and debated countless times by countless people and organizations in many formats. But a letter Informed Infrastructure received and published in its July/August 2018 issue sparked our own questions about how we can better discuss and analyze this problem as well as come up with some real, actionable solutions.

The letter was from Mike Lawrence, the CEO of Tensar Corp., which produces geosynthetic technologies for infrastructure. He noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave U.S. roads a D grade in 2017 and wondered what we can do to move that grade to an A+ as quickly as possible.

According to his letter: “The keys are increased focus on efficiency; the application of existing, proven innovations; and optimizing decisions for total, lifetime cost of ownership.” You can read his entire letter at https://bit.ly/2FjlNzE.

We also were inspired by an “Infrastructure Outlook” column written for us by Bill Shuster (R-PA), who at the time was the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman. His full column, “We Need 21st Century Solutions for America’s Infrastructure,” appeared in our September/October 2018 issue and can be viewed at https://bit.ly/2slElXu.

After discussion with a panel of experts who came up with a half-dozen questions they felt were most important to solving these issues, we decided to let our readers help choose which elements were most important to them. With their input, we ranked the questions and circulated them back to the experts quoted in this feature for their answers and opinions.

Although we realize this is just “yet another discussion on the topic,” we hope that by incorporating our readers’ feedback and consulting a panel with proven expertise, we can help move the discussion closer to realized answers and solutions. We thought the first issue of 2019 would be the perfect place to publish this piece.

The next step will be up to our readers and those they communicate with to champion the ideas and solutions that seem best to them, and we welcome continued feedback to shape future editorial content that can help move the transportation grade closer to A+ in future report cards.

Please send any feedback or comments to:

Todd Danielson
Editorial Director
Informed Infrastructure
[email protected]


(in order ranked by readers)

1. What’s the first thing that needs to be done to raise U.S. infrastructure grades? What’s holding us back?

Brown: Reliable, predictable and sufficient funding will be required to accelerate the pace of improvement of America’s transportation infrastructure. Not only must federal funding be supplemented by state and local funding, but the funding must be reliable and predictable, allowing contractors and industry to effectively mobilize. 

Beyond funding, one thing that could be done immediately to raise the quality and efficiency of American infrastructure is to revise the federal procurement rules so public agencies can more easily avail themselves of market innovation. As one example, the nation’s road building contractors in March 2018 petitioned USDOT, via ARTBA, to repeal 23 CFR 635.411, the antiquated federal rule that essentially prevents public agencies from using federal funds to acquire patented or proprietary materials.

Langman: We’re headed toward an infrastructure cliff. Reversing course will require all or a combination of the various alternative approaches to sustainable infrastructure funding.

We need a transparent national policy that establishes a predictable and standardized procurement framework. It must maximize private-sector investment, communicate realistic cost expectations and prioritize projects that improve the state of our nation’s infrastructure. But private-sector funds alone are not sufficient. Further actions from Congress are needed to provide financing tools to the states when necessary. This includes reducing federal restrictions on interstate tolling (both new construction and rehabilitation of existing roadways) to help states secure a new, dedicated revenue stream for infrastructure development. To gain public acceptance, such implementation must be adopted broadly, not just state by state. It must establish a clear value proposition and allow for some cross-subsidies, credits and rebates to offset inequities.

Additionally, expansion of federal loan programs, such as TIFIA, can help secure low-cost financings and get riskier or smaller projects across the finish line. Increased government contributions to public transit, green infrastructure and social infrastructure are essential to these projects’ economic viability. Imposing congestion taxes on drivers entering major cities, like New York City, can also help shift travel to public transportation and away from roadways.

Finally, political imperatives and election cycles tend to result in a lack of action and hold back progress. There are, however, many well-run publicly owned and operated toll roads. Removing political influence from tolling decisions by creating independent tolling authorities can facilitate business-minded management that delivers efficient operations, customer satisfaction and well-maintained roads.

Schickel: The first thing that needs to be done is to increase the amount of money spent on improving the infrastructure. Research to determine more-efficient methods, materials, standards, etc., is a good long-term investment, but we need to invest now.

One of the deterrents is the inability to communicate the reasons why this is a good investment. Another is that politicians are in the business of getting re-elected, not doing what’s right for the people. So they will not increase taxes or re-distribute some of the enormous amounts of money we spend elsewhere, such as the defense budget.

Siekmeier: We need to continuously improve outcomes by measuring performance, requiring greater financial effectiveness and using resources sustainably. A key recommendation to raise America’s infrastructure grade is sustained sensible investment in safety, pavement and the geotechnical assets that result in a state of good repair for America’s roadways. In addition, we need to maximize return on investment and strategically invest new revenue to improve connections to pedestrian, bicycle and transit networks that enhance opportunity for all people.

2. What’s your primary concern regarding the current state of U.S. transportation infrastructure?

Brown: My primary concern is regarding funding, and how that funding is then utilized. If we don’t identify alternative sources of funding and allow market forces to dictate how that funding is spent, then we will continue to struggle to meet the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Langman: Infrastructure development has not taken precedence in the United States, and there’s no mechanism in place that establishes a sustainable long-term funding commitment. Reluctance to raise the federal gasoline tax will likely persist with funding deficits continuing to widen—a significant risk to the U.S. economy.

Schickel: When I was growing up, we fantasized about flying cars. Now we are spending research and development money on autonomous vehicles. That’s nice, but if the roads, signals, railroads, airports, etc., aren’t fixed now, it won’t matter much if you or some robot is fixing your flat tire or if you’re stuck in traffic. You will still be late.

Siekmeier: Effective innovation deployment can enhance infrastructure investment outcomes and help us avoid adverse financial consequences such as wasted labor, wasted energy and wasted resources. Additional consequences resulting from ineffective infrastructure investment are inadequate roadway maintenance, reduced public confidence in our stewardship and a lessening of the public’s willingness to provide additional investment through increased taxes. More-effective innovation deployment has the potential to mitigate some of these negative consequences by demonstrating a renewed good-faith effort to maintain and improve our shared roadway assets.

3. What can be done to encourage contractors and DOTs to adopt new cost-saving, quality-enhancing transportation infrastructure innovations?  

Brown: Contractors need only the incentive of “easier, faster, less expensive” to be convinced to adopt innovation, and are doing so already on P3 projects not encumbered by federal procurement rules as well as numerous other conventionally contracted projects.

Langman: Valuable lessons can be learned from infrastructure funding practices in other countries and from state and local governments here. Recent advances in toll technology also can help DOTs and developers gain significant long-term cost savings and efficiencies. It will be important for toll road operators and developers to keep themselves current on evolving technologies, laws and policies by engaging with relevant industry experts.

Siekmeier: Transportation organizations can do their part by improving service delivery and enhancing performance. To succeed, it will likely be necessary for transportation organizations to overcome a variety of challenges that can impede effective innovation deployment. These challenges include failure to recognize existing opportunities for innovation and complacent organizational cultures. It is necessary for transportation organizations to overcome these challenges and establish a culture of innovation because we can’t meet today’s needs with yesterday’s technologies and policies.

Zornberg: When you invest in engineering, it’s an upfront investment, and you may not appreciate how much payback you’re going to get out of that. You may think of engineering as an additional checkbox in regulatory requirements that needs to be fulfilled, but it’s not a checkbox; it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the overall cost and performance of infrastructure. We need to encourage incentives that emphasize engineering and make the contractor take ownership of their engineering work.

4. If federal funding for transportation infrastructure is held to current levels (no increase or decrease), what will it take to accelerate the pace of improvement for U.S. transportation infrastructure?

Brown: Greater prioritization at federal, state and local levels will be required to accelerate the pace of improvement of America’s transportation infrastructure. If federal funding is held constant, then it will need to be supplemented by state and local funding. In my home state of Georgia, our governor announced $18.1 million in additional funding via the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank. 

Further, when funding sources are identified, steps must be taken to ensure that these funds are actually dedicated for infrastructure improvement. California voters recently passed Proposition 69, which requires that funds generated by a 2017 gas tax increase be spent only on transportation projects, and this is one example of how legislative action can be conducive to infrastructure advancement.

Langman: An increasing number of states have taken matters into their own hands by raising local gas taxes, sales taxes and motor vehicle fees to generate additional revenue streams to pay for, at least in part, road construction and maintenance. More states are likely to follow in the coming years, but these efforts alone will not be sufficient to cover growing needs.

Tolling must be part of the equation, and public-private partnerships (P3s) will remain a key focus. The private sector can be brought in to enhance project delivery and ensure efficient investment. As the benefits become increasingly evident, more state and local governments will embrace P3 structures to facilitate a combination of public and private investments, realize innovation and efficiencies, and accelerate the pace of improvements.

Siekmeier: Many organizations have a tendency to resist change, which may be verbalized as “that’s how we do it here” or “we’ve always done it that way.” These common barriers to innovation and quality improvement may exist even when opportunities for greater innovation deployment are readily available. It’s unclear why these opportunities are not better recognized and adopted when there’s easy access to existing specifications supplemented by internet-based webinars provided by multiple professional organizations. For example, there are many recent publications by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program and other technology transfer opportunities provided by the Federal Highway Administration Transportation Pooled Fund Program. In addition, construction equipment manufacturers are deploying new equipment that identifies corrective actions that can happen immediately during construction, therefore reducing waste and eliminating future costs. Finally, testing equipment manufacturers are also deploying new testing devices, which are performance-based and therefore better able to measure the critical properties effecting roadway performance.

Zornberg: I’m an engineer and researcher, and there are many opportunities to decrease cost and improve performance. We need innovation and additional engineering as well as upfront investments so the lifecycle costs of infrastructure overall are significantly reduced. For instance, when we design a foundation, if we don’t do the homework and test the soils and understand the loads and material properties, we end up adopting conservative values and huge factors of safety. In the end, the product is potentially overdesigned in some areas and under-designed in others. We need to invest upfront in testing and engineering to optimize the design.

5. How is your organization helping to more aggressively upgrade the quality of U.S. transportation infrastructure?

Brown: At Tensar International, our organization is responding to the nation’s infrastructure-related needs by continuously developing new, innovative and game-changing products. As an example, our TriAx line of geogrid products can result in reduced construction and lifecycle costs. These benefits have been proven through Accelerated Pavement Testing and verified through post-construction Accelerated Plate Load Testing, and they’re now are being used in a number of states. 

Langman: HNTB is working with local, state and federal policy makers to advocate for infrastructure investment and enhance the tools available to public owners. Public resources are scarce, and HNTB is working to identify opportunities for innovation that reduce costs and minimize risk. HNTB has expanded its advisory services to help clients develop strategic plans and create new projects and programs. We are leading on the evolution and emergence of new technologies (tolling, connected and automated vehicles), and developing partnerships across transportation modes to improve mobility.

Siekmeier: Many transportation agencies are implementing a new pavement design method to optimize financial effectiveness and improve pavement performance. This new design method requires new performance-based inputs for the pavement foundation layers. When these design parameters are confirmed during construction, then we gain confidence that the expected performance will be achieved.

Zornberg: I was the president of the International Geosynthetics Society and have close relationships with state-level DOTs such as TXDOT. Through research, we have been able to provide an additional level of confidence to take new steps in the right direction.

Sometimes one person can make the difference. Texas has a strong mechanism by which research, development and technology can be formally proposed, conducted and implemented. My hat’s off to agencies such as TXDOT that have vision and appreciate long-term benefits. California also is doing a good job. By showcasing these states’ success stories and how investment in research has paid off, we can be more proactive.

6. What recommendations or requests do you have for readers of Informed Infrastructure regarding the state of U.S. transportation infrastructure?

Brown: U.S. road-building contractors are highly qualified to deliver cost-effective, on-time, high-quality projects; and they do so most efficiently if they’re allowed to utilize all the design, service and product levers that the market provides.

Langman: Infrastructure funding must become a priority, and government action is needed. The realistic funding options to achieve a reliable, sustainable and long-term transportation funding commitment will likely include a combination of taxes, fees and tolling. Any plan will have to come with broad customer education, and it must be perceived as fair for any chance at success.

Schickel: Run for office. If you can’t, find someone who will and has the same priorities, and work on their campaign. We need engineers in positions with power. Infrastructure needs to be a priority.

Siekmeier: Engage and apply greater pressure on elected officials, professional organizations, and complacent bureaucracies.

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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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