Back in 1956, the idea of an Interstate Highway System was revolutionary. It was the next frontier to achieve manifest destiny. Our country’s population had spread from coast to coast thanks to pioneers who ventured the treacherous Oregon Trail and Abraham Lincoln’s vision of the Continental Railroad—and now there was a new opportunity to move America more efficiently.
President Eisenhower seized that opportunity and it was a game changer for our country. As Americans were investing in a family car, America was investing in the roads those cars would drive. It was practical as a way to strengthen the growing economy, as it connected ports to the heartland of America and created a more efficient way to move goods. Thanks to the creation of the Highway Trust Fund and the investment made, the Interstate Highway System revolutionized this country.
In more recent decades, however, we’ve seemed to lack a new vision for the future. The legacy is in jeopardy as the Highway Trust Fund once again hurdles toward insolvency. Without a strong federal role in surface transportation we will not be able to seize the opportunity that new innovations offer.
The value of these investments are being seen across the country in communities that have made the investment into transportation—as well as freight, energy, and water infrastructure—and are reaping the benefits of modernization.
As civil engineers, we warn of the dire needs of our nation’s “D+” infrastructure in the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. But equally important is the new opportunity to propel forward once again thanks to technology, using new project delivery methods, and innovative materials and engineering techniques. These communities are finding ways to make the most of limited investment dollars. They are using new technology to design safer, smarter and more efficient. They are preparing us for the challenges of the future by being more resilient. These trends could revolutionize the industry, modernize our nation’s infrastructure, and lead to economic growth.
Rapid bridge replacement is one potential game changer that takes advantage of replacing bridges more quickly and cost effectively. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) faces a daunting challenge of being the state with the highest number of structurally deficient bridges. To reduce this number, PennDOT is replacing 558 bridges in 36 months through a public-private partnership. By taking this innovative approach, Pennsylvania is addressing their aging bridges’ needs while minimizing the impact to motorists.
Another new tool is robotic inspection, which enables engineers to inspect roads and bridges faster and yields better results than the visual eye. Such tools can lead to major cost savings because these high-tech robots can detect road damage sooner so that repairs can be done preemptively.
Transportation apps are likely game changers in your own life, and Uber and Waze are equally transformative for more effective transportation project planning. Both are being used by cities as a source of data so that transportation departments can better understand traffic patterns, bottlenecks, and even where potholes are in need of patching.
Imagine what we could do if we replicated these innovations and seized the opportunity to invest, rather than continue the short-term patches that hurt the economy. Our infrastructure would receive much higher grades, because it is fit for the future. We would be more prepared to handle tomorrow’s challenges. And we would successfully continue the legacy of giving our next generation the investment of infrastructure.
Previous generations left us a remarkable legacy. My grandfather would never have imagined getting in a car and driving from Florida to Oregon over the course of a few days. Now we are on the cusp of new technologies that allow cars to talk to one another. The question is: will our legacy have revolutionized infrastructure for the next generation so it is prepared for these advancements?
Stevens is president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which just released a new report on Infrastructure Game Changers in freight, water, energy, and transportation. View the report at ASCEgamechangers.org.