Trans­porta­tion spending is a hot-​​button issue in Con­gress. House Repub­li­ca­tions have pro­posed a six-​​year, $230 bil­lion exten­sion of the sur­face trans­porta­tion bill to fund projects including roads, bridges and public transit. In the Senate, Democ­rats have pushed back with their own two-​​year, $109 bil­lion bill, arguing that the Repub­lican pro­posal would cut trans­porta­tion spending across the board. We asked Joseph Giglio, exec­u­tive pro­fessor of strategic man­age­ment in the Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion and an infra­struc­ture authority, to examine the state of America’s infra­struc­ture and what can be done to improve the system. 

Do we have a national trans­porta­tion problem in the United States?

No. What we have is a national trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture con­di­tion. Prob­lems can be solved; our national trans­porta­tion con­di­tion can only be coped with. In the future, our gov­ern­ment and society must act with a greater sense of urgency and greater intel­li­gence than we have in the recent past.

For those who believe that a major policy break­through in dealing with this con­di­tion is likely at the fed­eral level, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. It is now dawning on us that the chal­lenges in trans­porta­tion (and every­thing else) rep­re­sent a per­ma­nent con­di­tion that will never go away on its own accord, and like a life-​​threatening dis­ease, could cause sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges if not promptly treated. The nec­es­sary treat­ment for our national trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture con­di­tion will inevitably involve some sig­nif­i­cant lifestyle changes as well as short-​​term palliatives.

What are the funding sources for our trans­porta­tion infrastructure?

Ulti­mately, there are two basic sources of rev­enue for our trans­porta­tion net­work: user fees and taxes.  We need net new resources for our trans­porta­tion net­work. By net, I mean that it must be more than simply shifting funds from one time period to another, trading on the future and con­tin­uing our addic­tion to debt. By new, I mean that it must be above and beyond funds that are oth­er­wise avail­able from public resources. So the trick is how to increase the amount of trans­porta­tion invest­ment at the national level without increasing public debt as a per­centage of GDP.

Addi­tion­ally, these new resources must include more than just money to allow for reduced costs and/​or higher-​​quality ser­vices from the same level of funds. Put dif­fer­ently, what will we do to enhance oper­ating effec­tive­ness and improve cus­tomer services?

What should we stop doing, what should we keep doing and what should we start doing to improve our trans­porta­tion network?

We should stop politi­cizing invest­ment deci­sions at the national level by assaulting both leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive ear­marks. The last national trans­porta­tion bill had one out of every 14 dol­lars autho­rized devoted to ear­marks. That is not chopped liver. Closely related, we should stop thinking that simply throwing money at the same product, rather than spending money more appro­pri­ately, is the best approach.

We should con­tinue to pro­vide states with incen­tives and flex­i­bility to try market-​​based approaches to man­aging and financing the trans­porta­tion net­work, just as we do for other non-​​discretionary goods and ser­vices. One re-​​emerging trend is that states are pur­suing public–private part­ner­ships out of fiscal necessity.

We should start to accel­erate the deploy­ment of intel­li­gent trans­porta­tion tech­nology to improve cus­tomer ser­vice, enhance oper­ating effi­cien­cies and gen­erate addi­tional resources. Today’s trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture isn’t just about steel and con­crete; it is about cam­eras, sen­sors, sig­nals and smart phones. We have to remind folks that we did not get out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones.