04/04/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

Our Political Bridges to Nowhere

Not everything in Washington ends up in gridlock, especially when it comes to expanding roads and bridges in order to, well, prevent gridlock. A case in point: President Obama recently signed a bill authorizing the construction of a large $690 million highway bridge over the scenic St. Croix River connecting the small river town of Stillwater, Minn., to rural Wisconsin communities. The bridge had bipartisan support in Congress and even brought together two people about as far apart on the political spectrum as possible, Minnesota's Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, and Wisconsin's embattled Republican governor, Scott Walker. It seems easier to build real bridges across our political divide than philosophical ones.

But how many new bridges do we need? If you listen to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), it sounds like we need a lot. They release a "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" periodically, and the last release, in 2009, gave the state of repair of our bridges a "C" and our roads a "D-." The ASCE estimated that our nation's infrastructure needs $2.2 trillion over five years to address its deterioration, an amount roughly 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009.

We can afford to do this. The bill for upgrading and repairing America's transportation infrastructure, while large, pales in comparison to other parts of the world. And we cannot afford not to do it. According to the Obama Administration, aging infrastructure costs businesses and families $130 billion annually and its repair would, according to the president, "save money in the long run."

This $2.2 trillion bill, though, assumes that we need to repair all that we have put in place, an assumption that we need to challenge. All too often, transportation-planning models extrapolate historic trends in order to predict future needs, without factoring in social, economic, or technological transformations that can dramatically alter where we spend our infrastructure dollars.

What we can't afford to do is repair and maintain infrastructure that we no longer need or not make investments in new types of infrastructure that we will need. Predicting where we can save money and shift investments to where they will do the most good demands that we take a much more holistic approach to transportation planning, connecting it to social science research in order to answer the question of what kind of transportation we will need in a century very different from the last one. The following examples show how we can reduce expenditures in some areas in order to increase them in others.

  • Remove Many Rural Roads: Our system of rural roads arose in an era of small farms, but with the consolidation of the agricultural economy into industrial-scale farms, many of our rural roads see very little traffic, even though local governments continue to maintain and repair them. Instead, we should consider removing the roads that see the least traffic, and convert those rights-of-way to other, more productive uses such as the production of bio-fuels, the cleansing of storm water runoff, and the creation of habitat corridors. This would not only save taxpayers money and spare local governments unnecessary costs, but would also lead to new forms of revenue and reduced expenditures in other non-transportation-related areas.
  • Move Bits More Than Bodies: Small business analysts see the number of "contingent" workers -- the self-employed, freelancers, or "accidental entrepreneurs" laid off from full-time positions -- growing to 40 to 45 percent of the workforce by 2020 and becoming a majority by 2030. While that trend has all sorts of implications in terms of our social safety net, it also suggests that the old models of transportation planning built around rush hour traffic into and out of a downtown core are obsolete and that we may already have more than enough urban road capacity for the next economy. A growing number of self-employed people will likely move around less and certainly not in a rush-hour pattern. It also suggests that we may need to shift transportation expenditures from highways to high-bandwidth digital connections as we move bits more than bodies.
  • Seek Healthier Modes of Transportation: By seeing the world from our disciplinary silos, we often miss connections among disparate and yet related phenomena. The connection between transportation and human health is one such disconnect. The fact that motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of deaths of Americans from ages 5 to 34 seems not to affect public policies that encourage an automobile-dependent lifestyle or alter public opinion that suburbs are safer than cities for young people, which they are not. This auto-dependency also contributes to a sedentary lifestyle that has contributed to an epidemic in obesit- related diabetes, costing the U.S. health care systems $147 billion annually. Getting people out of their cars and moving by foot or bike may be one of the most cost-effective transportation moves we could make, allowing us to reduce health care and transportation expenditures at the same time.
  • Use Infrastructure More Efficiently: The U.S. has the most extended transportation infrastructure, per capita, of any developed country in the world, which represents a drag on our economy and creates a competitive disadvantage for us. This stems, in part, from municipalities shifting much of the responsibility for transportation infrastructure from the public to the private sector, as communities increasingly relied on developers to put in roads as part of large-scale tract developments, which has burdened local government with high maintenance and repair costs over time. To defray these costs, local governments need to increase land-use mixes and densities and to utilize existing roadways as much as possible.

We can no longer afford to be so profligate with our transportation infrastructure and if we don't reign in these costs and creatively rethink these systems, the global economy will eventually force the issue. That's a bridge I don't think we want to cross.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.