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U.S. Roads and Bridges Are Getting Smarter

Experts make predictions on next-generation transportation infrastructure.

by / November 1, 2012
Transportation experts across the public and private sectors agree that the U.S. infrastructure is in peril. Photo courtesy of

America’s infrastructure is at a crisis point, as illustrated by the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007. During that Wednesday evening’s rush hour, the bridge spanning the Mississippi River suddenly gave way, killing 13 people and injuring 145. 

For 17 years leading up to the collapse, reports cited structural problems with the bridge, and the federal government rated it as “structurally deficient” — a rating given to approximately 75,000 other U.S. bridges in 2007.

Transportation experts across the public and private sectors agree that the U.S. infrastructure is in peril, a sentiment that’s supported with startling statistics from a 2011 study called Failure to Act, by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 

The report assigns real economic impacts to a status quo path for American transportation. It further asserts that America’s deficient roads, bridges and transit systems bring tangible economic consequences to U.S. businesses, with ramifications acutely felt in every household as well. And these effects will continue to grow unless the nation pumps significant investment into its crumbling transportation infrastructure. By 2020, businesses will pay $430 billion in increased transportation costs. U.S. exports will shrink to the tune of $28 billion annually, and individual household incomes would experience a related hit, with a $7,000 annual reduction predicted. 

Legislation passed in 1956 authorized the creation of the interstate highway system. Experts estimate the average lifespan of highways and bridges at about 50 years, which explains why the vast majority of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding today is spent on maintenance to existing roads and bridges.

But with the U.S. population expected to approach 400 million in 25 years, many leaders say this “patch and repair” strategy may not be sustainable. What technologies are driving tomorrow’s transportation infrastructure? Will today’s pilot programs and trials be broadly used in the next quarter century? What new innovations barely conceived of today might be commonplace in 2037? 

Blaine Leonard, past president of ASCE, says that despite the well documented funding challenges facing U.S. infrastructure, there is reason for optimism. “The fact that we can connect to the Internet on a phone in our pocket that has more computing power than was on the Apollo craft that went to the moon … it blows my mind,” he said. “When we look out 25 years, some things will happen that we can’t even conceive of because we’ll have the ability to do things that we don’t even know about today.” 

Cars Talking to Cars

Transportation professionals across government and industry are paying close attention to several so-called “connected vehicle” pilot programs, which have the potential to dramatically reduce vehicle collisions. Smarter cars with the capacity to communicate with one another via wireless communications devices can alert drivers of threats to their safety, reducing crashes by as much as 80 percent. 

Communicating Cars

In late August, the biggest road test of vehicle-to-vehicle crash avoidance technology began in Ann Arbor, Mich. Approximately 3,000 vehicles there are equipped with transmitters and receivers designed to communicate not only with each other, but also with a central infrastructure that collects data to determine whether to proceed with vehicle-to-vehicle technology. This pilot includes players from the city, state and federal levels, as well as industry — the top automakers are all working together on vehicle-to-vehicle technology so that once it comes to market, Toyota can talk to Volkswagen can talk to Ford, and so on. For a comprehensive look at the vehicle-to-vehicle pilot in Ann Arbor, check out the December issue of Government TechnologyPhoto courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation

But what do connected vehicles mean for infrastructure? Cars will have the capability to send and receive data from the roadways too. Smarter cars also have the potential to ease roadway congestion, influencing route choices based on current conditions. Vehicle-to-infrastructure communication could even alert that upcoming red light that you’re on your way, prompting a change to green.

Scott Belcher, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit trade group representing both public agencies and private companies involved in transportation, says the impacts of connected vehicles on the future of U.S. transportation cannot be overstated. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation will use data gathered in current trials to determine future requirements for automobile manufacturers related to connected vehicles. Experts believe new cars will need to be equipped with connected vehicle sensors within the next few years.

The data collected will be transmitted to traffic management centers, allowing government agencies to make more informed decisions on how to maximize the efficiency of their transportation infrastructure.

A Word About Big Data 

Belcher also notes that many government agencies are operating integrated traffic management centers, where emergency responders and law enforcement share space and intelligence alongside local transportation officials. This trend, he predicts, will grow in the years to come.

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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