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Drew Clark: Congress should modernize highway funding with 'chips,' not 'concrete'

Published: Sunday, May 24 2015 12:00 a.m. MDT

Traffic rolls past construction along Highway 36 Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, in Superior, Colo. As funding for highway construction and upkeep dwindles, Colordo has increasingly turned toward a once-unthinkable way to fund road expansion: tolls.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — So much of politics here in the nation's capital is about moving money from someone's pocket to someone else's. As a result, the threat of generational or sectional warfare frequently lurks below the surface of budget debates.

That's why it’s refreshing when think tanks and politicians disseminate ideas that can expand — rather than redistribute — the nation's economic pie. They do this by enabling policies that unlock value-creation.

Take federal transportation funding. The worthy idea of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation is to direct no less than 5 percent of federal highway funding to information technology-based transit projects.

The concept is not yet implemented into law. But developments here this week could tee up the idea for the future.

On Tuesday, the House passed a two-month extension of the Highway Trust Fund. The stopgap measure keeps federally funded highway projects from coming to a halt on May 31. Congress now has until July to consider the question: How will the nation pay for new highways?

It’s a question about how to carve up the economic pie. President Obama wants to fund $478 billion of highway construction through a 14 percent tax on foreign earnings of U.S. companies. A small number of Republicans, although not a majority, want to raise the federal gas tax beyond its current 18.4 cents per gallon level. Interestingly, however, Republicans are not adverse to raising gas taxes at the state level, as was recently done in Utah and Iowa.

But the issue of growing the economic pie was raised at an ITIF event hosted on Capitol Hill here Tuesday. Dubbed "From Concrete to Chips: Bringing the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act Into the Digital Age," the event accompanied an ITIF report about how next-generation communications technologies can enhance driver and pedestrian safety, deliver environmental benefits and boost economic growth.

"With intelligent transportation systems, once inert physical surfaces such as roadways become intelligent, flexible, dynamic platforms capable of addressing such challenges as congestion and traffic management, pricing and toll collections and safety and maintenance," wrote Stephen Ezell and Robert Atkinson of ITIF, a pro-technology think tank with roots in the centrist wing of the Democratic Party.

In a nutshell, here's the argument: Private sector capital improvement investments deploy information technology at 60 times the intensity of the public sector's investments in infrastructure. Given the billions of federal dollars devoted to highways and other forms of transportation, requiring federal and state investments in intelligent transportation systems will pay off in the not-so-distant future.

Just consider the safety facts. More than 5.5 million traffic accidents occur in the United States each year, leading to 33,000 fatalities. Technological advances now allow cars the ability to enhance drivers' skills. I am certain that the coming age of autonomous vehicles will lead to a dramatic decrease in traffic fatalities as self-driving cars become a reality in coming decades.

The U.S. Transportation Department's Connected Vehicle Research Program says that connected vehicle and infrastructure technology could eliminate more than 80 percent of vehicle crashes.

What's keeping this welcome future from emerging more quickly? It's the lack of investment and standardization in "smart roads," said panelists at an ITIF event. Not only do smart cars need to be able to communicate with one another, they need to be able to share data with the highways, too.

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