Fresh Ideas for Infrastructure
With President-elect Trump coming into office vowing to raise $1 trillion for infrastructure, many cities and states see a potential bonanza for high-speed rail development, bridge and highway repair, and, hopefully, urban transportation networks. As former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell noted at The Atlantic‘s summit on infrastructure, the Republican agenda is to let localities decide — and that should hold true for their infrastructure priorities as well, even if it means bike lanes, which a number of Republican Congressional lawmakers have come out against. At the summit, a number of speakers called for smarter, more resilient infrastructure, unleashing new technologies and moving to more equitable approaches for long-term financing.
Brendan Shane, regional director at C40 Cities, argues that with any new federal infrastructure investment, there is an opportunity to make infrastructure low-carbon and resilient. Complete green streets enable all forms of travel, but especially climate-friendly ones like walking and biking. The national energy grid is woefully outdated and could be updated to be more energy-efficient. Water systems could be made more cost-effective and resilient through the use of green infrastructure. However, he cautioned that “$1 trillion won’t go very far. Los Angeles just approved $120 billion in projects, and that was just one city.”
Resilient infrastructure is central for Norfolk, Virginia chief resilience officer Christine Morris. Norfolk, a coastal city that hosts the largest naval base in the U.S., just finalized its Vision 2100, which creates a road map for resilience and adaptation to both land subsidence and flooding from sea level rise. She said, “resilient cities don’t wait for someone to save them, they move forward and find partners.”
Morris was cautiously optimistic the department of defense and the federal government will continue to invest in making the base and the city that houses it more resilient. Norfolk plans on creating a layered system of defenses with wetlands, green infrastructure, berms, and gates. “The federal government wants to keep and protect national assets.”
Gabe Klein, co-author of Start-up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun, and Niki Christoff, head of government affairs for Uber, called for using new technologies to improve urban transportation infrastructure. Klein said the department of transportation’s smart cities challenge was brilliant at leveraging $40 million in prize money to create “$500 million in strategic planning.”
He said second-tier cities like Pittsburgh — the site of Uber’s self-driving ride-share experiments — are great places to test new transportation technologies, “as they can get things done faster.” Klein sees a mix of driven and autonomous vehicles for “a long time,” with a painful transition period over the next 20 years. Eventually, with the explosion of automated ride-share vehicles, 90 percent of cars in dense urban cores will go away, freeing up space for housing and parks.
Christoff noted that one of the biggest obstacles for automated vehicles is potholes, which cause confusion for the computers. She said Uber may eventually share the data automated vehicles collect on potholes with local transportation departments. If they are fixed, it would be a win-win for the private and public sectors. Klein said cities can also turn to the public for help in fixing potholes, asking them to identify and submit information. In D.C., when he was transportation commissioner, he created Pot-hole-palooza, a crowd-sourcing effort, and then sent out an “auto pothole killer.”
While Trump aims to use some mix of private and public funds for infrastructure, there was a discussion on what happens long-term when the money has been spent. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1972. Last year, Oregon piloted an innovative way to finance road and highway investment beyond the usual gas taxes or tolls: a usage fee, a tax for miles traveled. Some 5,000 cars participated in the pilot.
Instead of privileging hybrid vehicles over other types of vehicles, the system, which involves adding a small USB-like device into cars’ speedometers, treats all miles the same. “It’s more equitable, and the payment system is transparent. At the end of the month, you receive a bill like you do for water or cell phone service,” explained Richard Geddes, with the American Enterprise Institute. In a poll from last year, Oregonians were split on the idea of replacing the gas tax.