America’s Deteriorating Transportation Infrastructure

The United States once boasted one of the most modern and comprehensive transportation systems in the world. The Interstate Highway System, authorized in 1956 and including 41,000 miles of highways, is just one example of the eagerness with which Americans of the recent past tackled their infrastructure challenges. Thanks to the innovation represented by the Interstate, thousands of miles of unsafe, unpaved, or otherwise unsuitable routes were closed for good.

Over the last few decades, however, things have changed radically. Investment in roads, bridges, pipelines, and more has been in decline: A 9% drop in federal spending over the last ten years. Former Transportation Secretary Ray Hood compared the state of U.S. infrastructure to “a third-world country.” The problems aren’t just theoretical – they’re creating real, present, significant dangers for a large portion of the public on a daily basis.

Some key signs of deterioration include:

  • More than 58,000 U.S. bridges – 10% of the total – are deemed “structurally deficient.”
  • Many energy pipelines across the country considered “high risk” are 80-100 years old.
  • Though rare, high-profile rail accidents have highlighted poor train transport practices.
  • U.S. airports barely break the top 30 in recent rankings of the leading 100 airports.
  • Politicians have consistently declined federal funding for innovative transportation.

To realize the promise of a 21st century transportation infrastructure, average citizens and experts throughout the U.S. will need to work together on planning and implementing new ideas. New technologies and approaches to civil engineering challenges mean that bold and imaginative achievements are possible – if the will is there to reach for them.

What Will it Take to Revitalize Today’s Transportation Infrastructure?

Experts have estimated that vehicles cross structurally deficient bridges more than 200 million times every day. When transportation infrastructure falls behind, no amount of personal initiative and caution by drivers can make up for the potential for grievous injury. Luckily, there has never been a better opportunity to embrace the challenge and make positive changes.

What kinds of solutions might help resolve America’s infrastructural issues?

-Dual Use Roads and Highways

Solar roadways are beginning to be tested throughout the world, and they have a great deal of potential here in the United States. When solar panels are integrated on the roads, they can contribute to reduced greenhouse gas emissions while supporting lower energy costs. In U.S. tests supported by the Department of Transportation, implementation of roadway solar panels has been achieved at a remarkably low costs.

Some countries have already advanced a bit further. In the Netherlands, engineers found that, six months into a performance trial, the 70-meter energy-generating road surface outside the town of Krommenie provided much higher yields than expected. The road had already provided enough electricity to power all the needs of a small house. Even with the relatively fragile equipment, the road was capable of supporting 12-ton fire emergency vehicles.

-Internet of Things (IoT) Integration

Right now, it might seem as if every bridge and highway in the United States is in need of service – but this is not necessarily the case. Through the integration of high-tech, but relatively inexpensive sensors, it may become possible to monitor the status of individual spans of the road, making it possible to intervene more efficiently before problems develop.

That’s not the only application. IoT has the potential to reduce infrastructure costs in the future by helping to cut down on accidents and general “wear and tear” on America’s roadways. Today, autonomous vehicles rely largely on GPS signals from existing towers, but sensor integration within the roads could provide more precise automation for individual vehicles.

-Embrace the Potential for Mass Transit

Americans have long loved cars – but in the wake of recent recessions and other issues, even that view is evolving. For many people, the opportunity to drive fewer hours and spend less on gas is tempting. In some metropolitan areas, it is rapidly becoming old-fashioned to own a car: It is just as easy, and often less expensive, to use rideshare and crowdsourcing facilities.

Unfortunately, many U.S. communities cannot easily take advantage of mass transit today. In the long run, mass transit offers unique potential to streamline investments, curb energy use, and improve safety. Bus facilities should be expanded in small and mid-sized communities, while rail links major urban centers: The high-speed Miami to Orlando rail project is a good example.

-Higher Levels of Dedicated Infrastructure Investment

Speaking of the problems that plague U.S. airports, North American President Kevin M. Burke of the Airports Council International pointed to a lack of investment, saying many airports were operating beyond their designed capacity. This contributes to crowding and is one key reason why so many aviation facilities are outdated compared to their global counterparts.

Civil engineering issues have clear, albeit complex, solutions. However, no single solution exists for addressing the problem of political will. Working together within established professional organizations, civil engineers should do what they can to educate others about the importance of infrastructure and engage with community leaders to motivate positive change.

Learn More

Civil engineers play a crucial role in engineering the structural solutions of tomorrow and plan, design, construct, and operate the infrastructure essential to our modern lives. As a student in the online Master of Science in Civil Engineering program, you can enhance your quantitative decision-making skills and learn how to justify managerial decisions with data. You will also explore the capabilities of modern management technologies and discover how to successfully leverage these tools to maximize efficiencies in your projects and on your teams.