Infrastructure: Thinking Outside the Beltway

Infrastructure is critical to the health of the U.S. economy, and to its people. Though largely lost in the noisy national debate and all but ignored in the head-shaking Presidential campaign; public, private, and non-profit leaders are starting to cut through the chatter with new concerns about the state of our infrastructure today.

POLITICO Magazine recently surveyed 55 mayors from across the U.S., the results of which are cause for alarm – 33 percent feel that they have jeopardized lives by making cost-saving decisions that cut funding to infrastructure. In other words, the safety of our roads and bridges is declining, in part, because leaders at a local level have had to make hard choices in order to stretch the limited funds they have.

Of course, accompanying these concerns are calls for more money from Washington. Putting aside the notion of whether more spending equals more safety, what is true is that states, cities, and metro areas aren’t getting the help they want, so they’re getting creative.

Inside the Beltway, the prospect of a gas tax hike is a hazardous political stance to take. However, since 2012, 23 states have given the go ahead on plans to raise additional transportation revenues. Low prices at the pump have allowed state lawmakers to fill up their transportation funds without hitting the wallets of their constituents too hard.

Another outside-the-Beltway innovation: the nation’s first modern public-private partnership (P3) for public transportation recently began operations. Denver Regional Transportation District’s entered into a 34-year agreement with a private consortium to design, build, operate, and maintain a new transit line. This agreement enabled the private sector to assume some of the risks associated with the delivery of new infrastructure, and played a large part in accelerating the construction.

Public transit agencies are also beginning to work with ride-sharing companies. Alamonte Springs, Florida recently announced “it would be subsidizing 20 percent of all Uber rides within the city limits.” This announcement followed closely on the heels of the Ford Motor Company/Bridj/Kansas City Area Transportation Authority’s pilot program to augment the city’s transit system and focus on regions that are traditionally underserved by public transit. It will also only cost $1.50.

While the federal government’s funding shortfall is part of the impetus for these creative solutions, it does not mean that they are not still involved. However Washington’s role is clearly changing.

Just this past December, Congress successfully passed a welcome multi-year reauthorization of the surface transportation law but at the expiration of that legislation in 2020, spending will barely kept up with inflation. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee just approved the Water Resources Development Act in record time but all of the funding promises made by the bill are subject to the overall budget cap on non-defense appropriations that will constrain program growth through at least 2021. And while both chambers of Congress are working on aviation bills in 2016 that will provide the first increases in federal airport funding in over a decade, the chances of making significant headway in the long-term (and expensive) modernization of air traffic control technology are narrowing.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also trying to find new ways to use what funding it has more efficiently. Their new Smart Cities challenge is using a mix of public and private money to encourage cities to integrate innovative technologies into their transportation network (This is an area that Eno’s Digital Cities project will focus on an ongoing basis). And the Federal Highway Administration recently announced its tentative plans for the first national performance measurements for roads and bridges. This will require a tremendous amount of new data collection but will eventually allow policymakers to precisely target their scarce funding resources at the sections of their surface transportation system that need it most.

Later this month, Eno will be part of the 5th annual Infrastructure Week. While it started out as a Washington-centric series of presentations, meetings, and roundtables, in 2016 there are concurrent events happening all over the country. This outside-the-Beltway focus helps us to build the momentum needed to inform and educate the public about the importance of infrastructure. But it also means state, local, and metro officials can learn from one another to craft their own solutions to their infrastructure challenges.

This election year brought the things we disagree about into sharp relief. But infrastructure isn’t one of those things. There are many good things happening in Washington but let’s also take a page from the pragmatic, focused action happening elsewhere in the country.

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