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Infrastructure investment is here — how can we spend it wisely?

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For nearly a year, the question around infrastructure spending has been, “How much?” At last, the nation has received an answer.

Although smaller than originally proposed, the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure spending bill recently signed into law by President Biden will still ensure immense, much needed investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

But now that we’ve finalized the magnitude of our spending, it’s time to ask a new question: “How can we spend wisely?”

Decision-makers and the public need to remember that even the smallest of spending decisions can have enormous consequences. Not only can the choice of project type have lasting effects on an entire region, but even the construction practices selected for that project can determine its long-term success. 

Maricopa County, Arizona, for instance, has long chosen to maintain concrete pavements with asphalt overlays. Yet, a report by the Arizona Department of Transportation has found that costs associated with continuing to pave this way could quadruple over the coming years. Clearly, even decisions as small as maintenance technology choice can have an outsized impact.

This is not to say we should spend less. Our infrastructure spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen by roughly one-quarter over the past 60 years. Meanwhile, federal investment as a whole fell by 50 percent by the same metric between 2011 and 2018. Together, the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Build Back Better Act could reverse these trends and transform the nation’s infrastructure.

But to turn this raw investment into real impact will require us to spend more wisely. Thankfully, a growing body of research can allow us to do at.

New findings have given us the opportunity — and the mandate — to spend more boldly and intelligently than ever before. Here’s what we should do: Modernize planning tools to consider systems holistically, get out of technology ruts, and, most fundamentally, measure performance.

So, what do we mean by “considering systems holistically,” exactly? Rather than weighing the benefits of a project in isolation, holistic planning weighs how a project would also impact surrounding infrastructure and the wider region.

Consider the Red-Purple Bypass Project in Chicago: A modernization initiative of the Chicago Transit Authority, or CTA, this recently completed project rebuilt a junction between some of the city’s busiest El lines.

At first glance, building a short rail bridge seems like an isolated improvement. Yet, its cascading effects could be substantial.

By simply relieving a bottleneck, it could essentially unlock capacity equivalent to a new line — accommodating eight additional trains and 7,200 more passengers per hour. It will also improve reliability across the rail network, benefiting commuters in distant parts of Chicago. Evidently, thinking in terms of the wider network can make even localized projects hugely transformative.

This same holistic approach can also improve the nation’s ailing road networks.  

Research indicates that moving to whole system decision tools provides as much benefit as spending roughly 10 percent more per year. And the tools to do this, referred to as asset management tools, are commercially available. States should adopt and apply such tools to inform all funds allocation questions immediately.

Thankfully, systems perspectives are starting to become standard practice. Leading transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are today implementing accessibility-based performance planning — a leading whole systems approach.

This form of planning considers projects based on how many jobs, health care facilities, parks, and other key amenities people can reach in certain times by certain modes of transport. With this kind of systems planning, even targeted improvements can expand access across entire regions.

But systems approaches alone cannot ensure efficient spending: We’ll also need to escape technology ruts.

Research shows that when states eschew tired tools and use a wide variety of materials and construction technologies, they can build a system far more economically. In fact, using a broad mix of paving materials and practices, including investing in long-lasting construction, provides the same benefits as spending 32 percent more per year while also cutting pavement emissions by 21 percent.

Finally, to realize lasting change, we need to measure the performance of the infrastructure we create.

Currently, we rarely measure the quality of our roads — chiefly because data on infrastructure has been hard to gather. And yet, without this data, effective decision-making is impossible. That’s where smart technologies can prove useful.

Various smartphone crowdsourcing tools are already gathering road quality and travel time data across the country at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods. With more investment, these tools could help cash-strapped transportation departments while helping to mitigate traffic jams — which currently cost drivers roughly $1,000 annually.

Over many years, a narrative has emerged in the public imagination: when immense, visionary investments are made — the Hoover Dam, the Interstate Highway Network — cities, regions and nations are transformed as a result.

Yet, transformative infrastructure projects are the product of more than just massive investment: their success also depends on cutting-edge tools and perspectives that maximize those investments.

As we shift from negotiation to implementation, we should embrace a new narrative to guide our infrastructure investments. We need to understand that spending boldly is just the first step: ultimately, we must spend shrewdly as well.  

Jinhua Zhao, Ph.D. is director of MIT’s Mobility Initiative and an associate professor of transportation and City Planning.

Anson Stewart, Ph.D., is a research scientist at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Franz-Josef Ulm, Ph.D., is the faculty director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub and a professor in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research interests are in the mechanics and structures of materials. His research investigates the nano- and micromechanics of porous materials, such as concrete, rocks and bones and the durability mechanics of engineering materials and structures. 

Randolph Kirchain, Ph.D., is the co-director of the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub. His research focuses on the environmental and economic implications of materials selection and deals with the development of methods to model the cost of manufacture and the sustainability of current and emerging materials systems.

Research from the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub is sponsored by the Portland Cement Association and the RMC Research and Education Foundation.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the findings of the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Tags Anson Stewart Build Back Better Franz-Josef Ulm Infrastructure Investment Jinhua Zhao Joe Biden Randolph Kirchain White House

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