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Viewpoints: Strategic investment is key to revitalizing U.S. infrastructure

By Thomas J. Spearing III


After a divisive election season, it is heartening to see that one issue seems to be creating a potential point of unity among a broad range of political groups: investing in the nation’s infrastructure. Need evidence? A 2016 report from the TRIP research group found that “roads and bridges on New York’s Interstate Highway System are among the most deteriorated in the nation.”

President Trump has vowed to invest as much as $1 trillion over 10 years to restore or upgrade our crumbling infrastructure from coast to coast. This is a promising development, especially since it comes as many states, including New York, and municipalities have themselves recently committed to major transportation investments.

With such a formidable one-two punch of federal, state and local dollars, America may have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reposition its transportation infrastructure for the future. Yet there is one major challenge: spending the money in the right ways.

We must make our infrastructure investments very strategically if we are to achieve the gains – in jobs, economic growth, global competitiveness and quality of life – that Americans deserve. We must rethink our transportation priorities and approaches so that new spending lets us leapfrog to a new level of performance, rather than merely catching up to where we should have been for decades.

Here are a few ideas for ensuring that we achieve the greatest benefit from our transportation spending:

• Prioritize projects transparently: When we’re spending large amounts of public money on transportation, it’s critical that we preserve taxpayers’ trust. One way we do this is by removing politics from the equation when determining which projects to prioritize. For example, using a data-driven scoring model can serve to standardize and rationalize the decision-making process by scoring projects based on how well they ease congestion, improve economic development, provide access to jobs, enhance safety and environmental sustainability, and efficiently use land.

• Deliver projects more efficiently: Many states now allow the use of a design-build method for delivering large, complex transportation projects. Design-build brings together designers and contractors at a project’s beginning, under a single contract, which can spur innovation, gain economics of scale and accelerate the timeline to deliver the project at a significantly lower cost than offered by the traditional design-bid-build method. By adopting design-build for more projects, and even smaller projects, we can get more transportation improvements for the dollars we invest. The State Legislature will once again consider legislation that allows design-build to be expanded statewide. Perhaps this session, the legislation will pass.

• Innovate before we construct: Before we take steps to widen highways to deal with congestion, we should consider other techniques that can be more cost-efficient. For example, in urban areas where congestion builds quickly due to closely spaced on-ramps, planners can consider a technique called ramp metering, which uses traffic lights to adjust the flow of vehicles entering the highway. The net effect of this technique is to increase capacity during times of greatest demand, without building new lanes that are costly to build and maintain – and which are often unnecessary beyond the rush hour.

• Advance user-centered mobility: Technology is revolutionizing virtually every aspect of travel, from digital maps for planning trips, to GPS guidance, to digital tickets for trains and subways, to ride-hailing. We need to invest in technologies that erase the seams between modes, so travelers can assess and activate their mobility options easily, often from a smartphone app.

These are just a few of many strategies that could help us improve our transportation system significantly, while also ensuring that each dollar is spent effectively. Hopefully, we are on the road to more predictable and sustainable funding for New York State and the nation.

Thomas J. Spearing III is New York office leader and senior vice president of HNTB Corp.

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