Friday, February 17, 2012

Seven Ways to Improve U.S. Transportation

From Bloomberg News - - Spending Won't Fix What Ails U.S. Infrastructure by Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser - - seven ways to improve transportation in the United States:
  1. Let Users Pay - - A quote from Adam Smith, ". . .when high-roads, bridges, canals, etc., are in this manner made and supported by the commerce which is carried on by means of them, they can be made only where commerce requires them, and, consequently where it is proper to make them."  The future belongs to user fees to support the maintenance of aging infrastructure.  Like all prices, they allocate scarce resources to the people who value them most.  Note to future engineers - - the future of civil engineering might just look like our distant past.  Infrastructure in the U.S. started in the private sector, and it may be going back to the private sector.  Those engineers who think and see the world like owners and developers will do very well.
  2. Implement Congestion Pricing - - We should expect drivers to pay for more than just the physical costs of their travel.  We  should also expect them to pay for the congestion that they impose on other road users.  The world of markets and pricing comes to the boring world of concrete and steel.  Note to future engineers - - the future will involve variable pricing of just about everything.  From parking, to water, to highways - - engineering needs to embrace a world of pricing algorithms.  Those engineers that can develop and implement such algorithms will do very well.
  3. De-Federalize Transport Spending - - Most forms of transport infrastructure overwhelming serve the residents of a single state.  Yet the federal government has played an outsized role in funding transportation for 50-years.  Would Detroit's People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it.  Note to future engineers - - the fiscally constrainted world of our future will require use to come up with better ways to get $'s from A to C and not have to go thru B.  From infrastructure funding to health care - - engineering the middle out of overly complex processes and structures will be critical.
  4. Institutionalize Maintenance Funding - - Political leaders love to cut ribbons on new projects.  No one really cares about the hard work of maintaining older infrastructure.  The Highway Trust Fund should become solely a road and bridge fund - - a national "fix-it-first-policy" dedicated to the potholes of the nation.  Note to future engineers - - the new stuff is cool, but figuring out ways to fix the old stuff is going to have high demand.  Research and training $'s should be directed to the world of maintenance.
  5. Promote Private-Public Partnerships - - The basic idea is that the government establishes the need for some new investment, and clears the political hurdles, but then takes bids from the private sector for construction and operation.  This is closely linked to #1.  Note to future engineers - - this is the new frontier.  A certain kind of engineer will be needed with new skill sets - - the vision of developers, a firm understanding of the world of finance, a comfort level for the political jungle, a view of the big picture - - this is a huge jump up the value added chain.
  6. Cherish the Bus - - Cars can't be the only answer for urban commuters, especially for poorer Americans during an era of high gas prices (have you checked the pumps lately?).  Note to future engineers - - sharing resources is going to be in.  The bus is one example (Zip Cars is another) .  Buses can be a pleasant alternative, with televisions and Wi-Fi connectivity.  Buses can also be laboratories for alternative energy sources - - like natural gas.
  7. Split up the Port Authority - - I didn't understand this one.  Note to future engineers - - NYC and many other global mega-cities are really complex.  Those engineers that can fully understand the inner workings of these great giant cities will be at a premium. 

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