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.
Toyota has been deploying intelligent vehicles in Japan since 2009, said Hilary Cain, director of tech and innovation policy at the car manufacturer. "We haven't been able to bring such technology to the marketplace [in the U.S.] because our vehicles would have nothing to talk to."
Some call this computerization of everything — from cars to street lamps to highways — the "Internet of things." Saving thousands of lives from traffic fatalities is just one of its many benefits.
What does it mean to connect vehicles and highways to real-time data about traffic, motion and speed on our highways? In addition to new insights about the wear and tear on roads, Mary Brown, director of government affairs at Cisco Systems, said that cities will contemplate entirely new traffic and transportation policies. For example, cities could implement "surge pricing" for parking, just as London uses peak-pricing for driving in its downtown, or as Uber does with rush-hour uses of its ride-sharing service.
"As we connect the cars with the roads [through computerization], we are going to unleash new value in this sector that is not there now," said Brown.
Few disagree with the statement that funding transportation infrastructure is one of the core responsibilities of government. Legislatures need to determine whether those roads are paid for by corporate taxation, by a steeper gas tax, or by something else to be identified. Whatever it does, government should make sure its funding decisions are also a smart investment.