Rethinking transportation for the 21st century

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Advances in technology are framing a new and exciting vision for the future of transportation. One that our current policies, laws and regulations are not prepared to meet.

The model for building and funding transportation infrastructure has not changed very much over the past 60 years since the creation of our interstate highway system was enacted into law.  Road building, repair and maintenance are funded by user fees collected as gas tax at both the state and federal levels.

Gas taxes represent about 85 percent of all federal revenues.  Also, each state collects additional gas tax plus other fees including licensing and registration.  Thirty states have addressed transportation funding since 2012.   The federal government has not raised its gas tax since 1993. 

What transportation lacks is a compelling vision for the future that would generate excitement and spur legislative action.  This new vision is beginning to take shape. Morgan Stanley reported the future for the automobile will be “shared, autonomous and electric.” These shifts will force policy-makers to rethink transportation infrastructure in the United States and how it is funded. 

Solar Roadways® (SR) is building “modular system of specially engineered solar panels that can be walked and driven upon. Our panels contain LED lights to create lines and signage without paint. They contain heating elements to prevent snow and ice accumulation. The panels have microprocessors, which makes them intelligent. This allows the panels to communicate with each other, a central control station, and vehicles.”  Although this technology is in its early stages of development it holds promise for accelerating the rethinking the roadways of the future.

Photovoltaic lanes on highways may soon make it possible to charge your EV car’s battery using the road on which you are driving. This would help eliminate major impediments to these quiet and environmentally friendly vehicles – range and charging time – increasing demand.

Combine this with smart highways and autonomous vehicles.  These technologies allow vehicles to talk with one another.  This can substantially mitigate congestion and make the growing number of accidents caused by driver distraction issues a thing of the past.  This shift will reframe the conversations about how we make our roads safer and travel more convenient.

Companies including Google and Apple are working on nextgen “operating systems” not for desktops or smartphone but for cars to communicate with each other and with the highways on which they operate.   Autonomous vehicles, operating on smart roadways, will be environmentally friendly and safer as well as save millions of gallons of wasted gasoline and fuel per year. 

According to the National Association of State Legislatures, “Since 2012, at least 41 states and D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles.”  National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports, “The development of advanced automated vehicle safety technologies, including fully self-driving cars, may prove to be the greatest personal transportationrevolution since the popularization of the personal automobile nearly a century ago.”

Currently 10 states have laws that increase registration fees on electric vehicles.  These fees range from $50 – $100.   This shift to fees may be the wave of the future in how we generate funding for maintenance, repair and rebuilding transportationinfrastructure as revenues from gas tax begin to diminish as a result of a growing demand for electric and fuel cell powered vehicles.

What stands in the way of a new vision for transportation?  Over the past 60 years, industries and bureaucracies have grown out of the ways we fund and build roads and bridges.  The industry has very few thought leaders who are able to shape the debate about the future of transportation.  And, politicians rarely talk about infrastructure beyond pointing to an unsafe local road of closed bridge. 

Sixty years ago, realizing the strategic importance of highways, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began the largest public engineering project in our history to build the interstate highway system.  

In 2017, framed by environmental concerns, aging transportation infrastructure, and the opportunities being created by technology it is the right time to rethink transportation in America.  

Laws will need to be updated, funding sources rethought, and regulations revised.  Everything is in place to begin a new conversation. Bet on America to get it right.

Dennis M. Powell is an issues management strategist who works nationally with organizations to secure funding for transportation infrastructure. He was chief strategist in the passage of Act 89 in Pennsylvania in 2013. The bill provides $2.4 billion in additional funding annually and covers all modes of transportation. He has also worked in Arizona and in Kentucky. Mr. Powell is president of Massey Powell, an issues management strategy consultancy based in Plymouth Meeting Pa., since 1985. He can be reached at

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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