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The new US highway bill is stuck in the past

Washington did something

The new five-year, $305 billion highway bill signed by President Barack Obama last Friday is really, really long — just over 1,300 pages — and filled with terribly dry, boring government jargon. For example: "the Secretary provides to the State... a notification of the determination of noncompliance; a period of not less than 120 days to take such corrective action as the Secretary determines to be necessary to comply with the applicable agreement..." blah, blah, blah, and you can just feel your eyelids growing heavy.

It's the highway bill we need, but not the one we deserve right now

But the highway bill is incredibly significant for a variety of reasons. For one, it's the first surface transportation bill funded for longer than two years in almost two decades. It provides most of the major funding to repair our aging, crumbling, disintegrating — choose your own adjective — infrastructure. And lays out the nation's priorities for major construction projects over the the next five years.

But what about new technologies, new ways of getting around, and the slow migration of the American population from suburban sprawl to urban density? In that respect, the highway bill is a mixed bag. It pays some lip service to emerging technologies, like collision avoidance and driverless cars. But it does what government normally does when it comes to these types of innovations: holds them at arm's length.

There are five mentions of "autonomous vehicles" in the highway bill, all of which apply to grant funding. It directs the US Department of Transportation to pay for the "large scale installation and operation of advanced transportation technologies," "advanced safety systems," and a study of new vehicle technologies. It also directs the US comptroller to study autonomous vehicle technology by no later than 2017.

All of which sounds pretty uninspiring. There's no overarching governmental strategy for encouraging the private sector to develop driverless cars, nor any acknowledgement that driverless technology may shape the infrastructure of the future. There's just a promise to throw a modest sum of money at the wall and see what sticks.

This isn't surprising. Private companies like Google, Apple, Tesla, and Uber will be driving the innovation in this field, not Washington. They already are. Many companies don't want bureaucrats meddling in their business. Nonetheless, there are many who are disappointed there isn't more than just a passing nod to advanced vehicle technology.

Some modest wins for smart growth

Another way of looking at it, though, is that Washington's priorities shouldn't be dumping a bunch of money into unproven, untested technologies like driverless cars, or throwing cash at already-cash-rich industries like car-sharing. The highway bill's main function is to the fix roads, tunnels, and bridges, and provide funding for public transit. The private sector won't be leading the way on these necessary repairs, so Washington must.

In terms of funding for bike lanes and pedestrian paths, the bill is also both a win and a disappointment. Notably, it requires all design for roadways part of the National Highway System to take into account bicycle access. It prioritizes public transit and bike and pedestrian pathways for road design at DoT, and it gives cities the ability to overrule their states on design decisions.

But the highway bill totally misses the mark on funding. As many expected, Congress and the president failed to increase the gas tax, which provides most of the money for the highway bill and hasn't changed since the mid-'90s. A dollar in 1993 is worth only 60 cents today. If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue, or $68 billion rather than $34 billion. In other words, they are leaving billions and billions on the table by opting for the politically expedient move of leaving the gas tax untouched.

In fact, congressional leaders were able to build support for the bill by, yet again, dipping into pots of money that aren't theirs to dip into — this time an account used by the Federal Reserve, resulting in a stinging rebuke from Chairwoman Janet Yellen. By baking in out-dated funding formulas for the next five years, experts believe that Washington is putting the country's fragile infrastructure at risk for future disinvestment.

The highway bill failed to live up to its potential in many respects. But it will still be celebrated as a victory by many stakeholders, thanks to the inertia that reigns in Washington. When partisan bickering means nothing gets done, the little that does can easily be mistaken for progress.


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