Op-Ed: Coronavirus Stimulus 4.0? Infrastructure Investment in a New Era

The passing of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and a Congressional recess has not stopped rumblings of another round of stimulus. While CARES was intended to get cash quickly to people, companies, and governments, the next round is proposed to target infrastructure. As Eno’s Jeff Davis points out, House Democrats already reframed their $760 billion, 5-year infrastructure framework from January as the basis for their proposal. The President tweeted his desire for a $2 trillion infrastructure package over 10 years.

Congressional Republicans already threw some cold water on prospects for an infrastructure stimulus, so chances of something passing in the near future are not great. But now is the time to start talking about how to frame such a bill. The timing happens to coincide with the expiration of federal surface transportation reauthorization: the 2015 FAST Act expires at the end of September 2020. Reauthorizing the surface transportation law with increased spending seems to have bipartisan support. The best way to spend that money would be to address to several converging trends.

Infrastructure trends before coronavirus

Advocates frequently cite America’s “crumbling infrastructure” to justify increased spending. This suggests that a federal bill would be wise to reorient its focus and eligibility toward asset management and operations. Transportation agencies are only beginning to implement modern asset management approaches that target investments to bring the system to a state of good repair. Better prioritization will help speed critical repairs and drive a new culture of fix-it-first to our transportation network. And as a bonus, highway and transit maintenance provide more jobs per dollar than capital expansion. Meanwhile, asphalt prices are as cheap as they have ever been.

Transportation engineers and planners are also looking toward operational improvements to improve congestion and enhance safety. Congestion pricing and managed lanes have demonstrated real progress toward increasing capacity and cutting delays. Vision zero efforts and operational changes that support them are low cost ways of moving the needle on safety improvement. Technology can be employed to automate functions, respond quicker to incidents, and redirect traffic to maximize the use of capacity. Allowing flexibility to states and localities to meet federal targets, supported by dollars for improved assets, can support these trends.

Infrastructure trends happening or might happen after coronavirus

The last major infrastructure stimulus bill, in 2009, was for a very different kind of crisis. The economy was in freefall, and putting people to work building infrastructure as the economy was rebuilding was a reasonable approach. But the COVID-19 crisis sudden drop in travel is resetting our thinking on transportation demands.

Most importantly, stay at home orders could greatly advance the trend toward more remote work. Cities and commuting will recover and in the medium term people will once again fly, take buses, and drive about. But the kinds of jobs that are most easily conducted through telework are also the kind that takes up most of the transportation capacity during the morning and evening rush hours. Serving the peak commuting hours is the most expensive aspect of transportation, requiring extra buses, trains, and highway lanes. Even a relatively small increase in work from home could relieve significant stress on the system and reallocate service to other parts of the day.

Changes during and after COVID-19 might also include major shifts in supply chains, greater desires for sidewalks and walking paths, and changed demands for technology-enabled transportation. How those patterns play out is a guessing game at this point. But the demand models that justify infrastructure expansion could be significantly off.

An infrastructure policy that can adapt to address these trends?

The converging trends indicate that a new surface transportation infrastructure bill needs to emphasize asset management to improve state of good repair. Significant resources and clear performance targets will help states and localities smartly and systematically prioritize roads and transit systems to improve their condition. An infrastructure bill should also include significant modal flexibility and relaxed restrictions on pricing to allow states and localities the ability to make their own choices on where and how to invest and improve operations. Flexibility will be important as cities and states adapt to possible new travel patterns and trends.

Finally, a new infrastructure bill with a new focus can remove some of the traditional silos and funding formulae that have been stuck in place for decades. New funding is likely coming from general fund sources, so no state or mode can claim the money as theirs over anyone else as is done today. This can allow the program to target greatest need, reward best performance, while also allocating scarce resources efficiently to the large transformation projects that will move the economy forward.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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