Bridging the Funding Gap

Addressing America's Transportation Infrastructure Crisis

To begin, a haiku:

Big infrastructure -
transportation’s legacy.
Show me the money.

There is nothing sexier in transportation than big infrastructure. Big bridges. Long tunnels. Endless asphalt. But, as CityLab pointed out in an article published late last month, pouring concrete isn’t cheap. Particularly when the well is swiftly drying up. The desiccation of the United States Highway Trust Fund, supported by the federal fuel tax, is a result of several phenomena (inflation, anti-tax sentiment, fuel economy improvements) that, when combined, might spell the end not only of the Highway Era, but of the Megaproject Era. An unsettling harbinger of this fate lies in our nation’s infrastructure crisis. A lack of funding for continued operation and maintenance of America’s extant transportation systems and structures paints a bleak picture for the future of large – as in, multi-billion dollars large – transportation infrastructure development.

This considered, I impel not only the future generation of transportation planners, policymakers, and engineers to reconsider transportation financing mechanisms, but also which modes are most deserving of accommodation. While bridges, tunnels, and asphalt have reigned for much of the last century, it might be time to think about where investments might reap the most sustainable rewards – whether targeted towards the alternative fuel or advanced technology auto, transit, or otherwise.

If this paradigm shift does, indeed, materialize, it will inevitably follow the money - as most things do. Accordingly, those politicians reaching for transportation dollars where they can get it will most certainly have the upper hand from a power perspective. And, if we’ve learned anything from Uncle Ben (the Spiderman one, not the rice one), with great power comes great responsibility…and great transportation monuments. 

Apparently, this is not an opportunity lost on mayors, and other state and local officials taking a stand on reforming transportation spending in the United States. From the CityLab article mentioned prior, these upcoming “Infrastructure Mavens” are launching “the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects”. Dissatisfied with, typically, Republican governors’ performance in accumulating and transferring transportation dollars from the federal to the state level for infrastructure projects, this coalition of, primarily, Democratic mayors is seeking to take control of solving our nation’s infrastructure crisis. 

Whether this represents a power trip or a legitimate commitment to addressing one of the great transportation failures of the twenty-first century, I, for one, am thrilled by this announcement. I am hearted by any initiative, in fact, that promises to repair the Bay Area’s sub-par bridge conditions, among other projects. [Seriously, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission reports that 41% of bridge and overpass deck area in San Francisco is structurally deficient. The ground here is shaky enough already; thinking further about the risks associated with this statistic is beyond alarming.]

I am cautious with this optimism, however. For, as CityLab goes on to describe, the cracks extending beyond our transportation infrastructure to our nation’s transportation financing systems are not new. They have been growing for some time now, and usually garner political attention and professed support from big business around the time of the State of the Union address each year (as was done in 2015). But, alas, little action has yet to come from this cries. Transportation spending, which one might intuitively perceive to be a bipartisan issue particularly where it manifests in ubiquitous infrastructure failure, is nonetheless contentious considering the money for rectifying this problem has to come from somewhere. The question is, where? 

To end, in David Graham’s words:

“Many politicians seem to be genuinely eager to solve these problems but unable to find a way to do so. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but if these mayors want to head someplace else, they're going to need to find the funding for asphalt.

Here’s to supporting steps – no matter how small or wobbly – towards a sustainable transportation funding and financing future.