Despite what you’ve heard, highways are not doomed. 5 upsides for U.S. infrastructure

$170 billion – That’s how much the United States needs to invest annually to save our roads and bridges, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). If that sounds like a dead end, consider this: We currently invest $91 billion per year on highway infrastructure. An $89 billion increase is a slither of the $trillion increase in overall infrastructure spending recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). How will we get the funds for our highways? We already have the money– we’ve been spending it on unfit roads. Annual costs of outdated highways– wasted fuel, wasted hours, unnecessary roadwork, and avoidable accidents – is several-fold the proposed increase. Businesses, healthcare, local governments, commuters, insurance holders and consumers have been shouldering the costs. The expenses are veiled. For example, one company interviewed by the Washington Post, tracked detours their trucks made during shipments. It was costing them about $300,000 per year. That expense invariably trickles into the cost of goods. Last week, ASCE released an infrastructure report card that grades a slate of public essentials – ports, dams, waterways, public parks, schools and waste management – on a scale of A through F. Their evaluation of highways are based on reports from the FHA, The American Association of State, Highway and Transportation Officials, United States Department of Transportation (DOT) and their own research. Overall, infrastructure got a D+ — bridges got a C+ and roads got a D. On one hand, we’ve been at D-Level since 1998, so this year’s rating is no cause for hysteria. On the other hand, we’ve been at D-level since 1998, so we’ve been wasting a lot of money for a long time. The ASCE predicts that by 2020, business will pay $1.2 trillion and households will pay $116 billion for failing infrastructure. We are living in one of the most innovative periods in human history. The past decade is unparalleled in terms of breakthroughs in material sciences, virtual reality, surveillance technology, and the collection, storage and mining of big data. Likewise, our knowledge of human behavior and effective design is growing more sophisticated. So are personal tastes. We are now able to build and upgrade superior structures for a fraction of the cost. Its time our highways caught up.

1. Congestion is expensive – Fixing it doesn’t have to be

According to the infrastructure report card, traffic jams cost the United States over $100 billion a year — drivers spend an average of 34 hours getting stuck in traffic or venturing onto a new route. This wastes 1.9 billion gallons of gasoline per year and robs the economy of productive work hours. Adding more lanes, overpasses or roads tends to inspire new development and this leads to more traffic. Road projects, moreover, are expensive and getting the necessary approval can be tough. Luckily, some of the best traffic solutions are also the cheapest. Efficiently timed signals, for example, can significantly improve flow. When Atlanta added Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) – traffic signals equipped with sensors that measure real-time vehicle count and respond accordingly – they reduced fuel consumption along an 8.2-mile highway by 34 percent. “Managed lane” programs accommodate site-specific traffic patterns. The effects can be dramatic. In Miami, the strategy addressed a chronically congested section of I-95, in part, by putting toll-free vehicles in designated lane. The changes effectively doubled the speed of traffic in the toll lanes and tripled speeds in the toll-free lanes. It’s also worth noting that congested roads are largely in urban areas where alternative transport – biking, walking, public transit and telecommunication – is increasingly popular. Many cities now have programs that encourage the trend.

2. Protection costs less than repairs

Asphalt has a lifespan of about twenty years. Continuous vehicle impact and storm water exposure eventually cause pavement to warp, crack and crumble. Then it gets expensive. Poorly paved roads require frequent upkeep – this includes repaving, filling potholes, and leveling the road’s surface. They also contribute to a large portion of accidents, adding to healthcare and insurance costs. The ASCE’s report card recognizes 32 percent of U.S. roads as “poor or mediocre.” Most of these are in cities. Collectively, they cost states and cities an additional $67 billion per year to maintain. According to FHA estimates, the annual costs of expired pavement is six to 10 times the cost of preservation treatments – which help seal and protect asphalt from water. As these treatments improve, so have the materials. Today’s asphalt mixes are more resilient and less toxic. Porous pavements, furthermore, reduce water damage by letting storm water seep through. Onsite pavement recycling is another exciting option. Rather than removing and rebuilding the road, this process remixes it on location, saving millions of dollars. When it comes to pavement, national investment is an imperative. By redirecting the $67 billion, we could protect the majority of U.S. roads.

3. Planners are getting better at best-fit solutions

Context Sensitive sollutionIn the past decade, public planning has undergone a philosophical shift. Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) – which seek to balance the needs of travelers, the natural environment, and the local community – is now one of three tenants of the FHA. Currently, state DOTs are receiving training on the approach. Roads designed as CSS have more staying power than roads designed from the former, car-centric approach because they anticipate and addresses a range of problems. But these solutions are often unconventional. Thanks to advancements in simulation software, roadway engineers can now observe the performance of unconventional designs before they build. The technology not only minimizes financial risk, it encourages conservative agencies to adopt much needed innovation. In the right situation, Divergent Diamond Interchanges (DDI) – a novel design that improves intersections by eliminating left-hand turns –effectively diffuses congestion. The design has helped aging overpasses meet current traffic demands – and it costs a fraction of traditional, less-effective designs. Although they’re proven safer, DDIs have been considered too radical – they ask drivers to crossover to the “wrong” side of the road. That thinking has changed fast. Thanks to simulation, DDIs are solving traffic problems throughout western states – including Montana, Utah and Wyoming.

4. Advanced laser-scanning is revolutionizing how we build

Image Source: jurvetson on flickr,
Image Source: jurvetson on flickr,
Lidar, a combination laser-radar system that renders 3-dimensional objects on a computer screen, has been used since the ‘60s. Today, the technology provides hauntingly detailed-resolutions. Engineers use it to study buildings, bridges and outdoor environments from the comfort of their desk. Thanks to its incredible precision, LiDar lets engineers superimpose the current renderings on top of original blueprints. This enables them to pinpoint damages without tearing the whole thing down. The implications for bridges are immense. The same technology captures topography. In the coming years, LiDar will become the gateway to fully realized CSS — the virtual renderings will allow all stakeholders to get intimately involved in the planning process. It will help us lay incredibly accurate roads and will eliminate a large portion of the expense associated with surveying, repairs and renovations.

5. Our infrastructure is already improving

For the record, the ASCE gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ this year. That’s our best score since 2001. Bridges, which gained a C+, factored into the overall grade improvement. Although we still have a high percentage of structurally deficient bridges, the report card says, we’ve completed a fair amount of restoration. The slight upswing may be an initial result of the 2009 stimulus package, which doled out $80 billion to infrastructure projects throughout the country. State, local, and private investment has also increased. Still, it’s not enough, says the ASCE. The organization wholly endorses the proposed National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank (NIRB), which would establish a capital investment system for infrastructure projects the federal government deems worthy. The bank would barrow $60 billion and invest it over 10 years. Obama, who has supported the proposal since he took office, believes the NIRB could leverage up to $500 billion in private investment – a slice of that would dramatically affect highways. The NIRB proposal has since expired, but a new version was recently introduced to congress. As the ASCE numbers suggest, national investment in infrastructure will have tremendous returns.   Image Source: Bilfinger on Flickr,