Special Report: Moving Surface Transportation Forward

Long-term investment in America’s transportation networks is critical for national prosperity, and security.
By Michelle S. Birdsall

Using prefabricated bridge elements helped the Massachusetts Department of Transportation replace 14 bridges in one construction season and minimize the impact to drivers.

The United States’ surface transportation program is receiving heightened attention, and for good reason. We face the challenge of properly maintaining an aging infrastructure while meeting increased capacity and safety demands— and we are being asked to do this without a sustainable, long-term funding source in place. 

Members of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE)—an international educational and scientific association of transportation professionals who are responsible for meeting mobility and safety needs—have adapted to the common theme of doing more with less by operating existing systems and facilities as efficiently as possible with limited resources. ITE facilitates the application of technology and scientific principles to research, planning, functional design, implementation, operation, policy development and management for all modes of ground transportation. 

With transformative transportation policy at the forefront of current political discussions, ITE is looking forward to new opportunities to reinvigorate the transportation industry with innovative engineering solutions while building on the success stories that have come out of the recent economic challenges. 


Not only is a properly maintained U.S. surface transportation system and infrastructure critical to people’s every day activities, it is a national security and defense necessity. There is a strong relationship between transportation and the military, with the Interstate Highway System originally built with the military in mind through the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956. A well maintained Interstate Highway System is just as important today to these concerns. One only has to look at the Hurricane Sandy response to appreciate the highway system’s ability to move critical equipment in and out, promptly attain military support from across the East Coast, and offer evacuation routes. 

It has become a challenge to secure a new funding solution that can meet the growing costs that come with aging infrastructure and increased congestion. The system’s funding mechanism through the Highway Trust Fund has become increasingly insufficient. It is primarily financed by the federal gasoline tax, a source of revenue that has been declining. The trust fund has not increased with gas prices because it is not based on a percentage, and the gas tax itself of 18.4 cents/gal has not been raised since the early 1990s.

As Americans have adjusted to driving less and using more fuel-efficient vehicles, funding for the trust has not been able to keep up. In this economy there has been little support for an increase in the gas tax or implementation of a tax based on individual vehicle miles driven. 

Toll gantries for the 495 Express Lanes will collect fees electronically to help improve traffic flow on the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway.

In July 2012, Congress showed it recognized the need for action on transportation issues by passing the long-overdue surface transportation authorization bill, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). MAP-21 authorizes $105 billion for highway and transit programs through October 2014, keeping spending levels at their current amounts with an increase for inflation. The two-year legislation will still draw the majority of its funding from the Highway Trust Fund. However, federal transportation funding has increasingly relied on transfers from the general fund. Further FY2013 transportation appropriations are not funded at the MAP-21 level. Transportation leaders face an ongoing challenge to cover shortfalls until a new method of sustainable funding can be agreed upon. The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission (established by Congress in 2005 to resolve the gasoline-tax issue) identified 15 viable alternatives, including taxes on car tires and truck trailers, and tariffs on imported oil. Additional investment hinges on what future funding mechanisms will look like. It is expected this will be a focus of President Obama’s second term, as he has shown support for transportation initiatives starting with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

MAP-21 at least will enable forwardthinking strategies by putting in place the first significant policy and programmatic changes since 1991. The law transforms the policy and framework for investments to guide the system’s growth and development, creating a streamlined and performance-based program that builds on many of the highway, transit, bike and pedestrian programs and policies already in place. As a result, the expectation is the nation’s surface transportation program will be more results driven, with the near-term implementation of performance measures serving as a driving force. 

MAP-21 seeks to shorten project delivery times. It consolidates many programs while doing away with earmarks, providing a more simplistic, streamlined approach. Another major change is that the legislation gives more control to states, cities, counties and metropolitan planning organizations in deciding how to spend transportation funding they receive on the projects they feel are needed most. MAP-21 also includes significant policy focus on freight, an area that has been neglected in the past. Considering some of the systems controlling the nation’s trains are 100 years old, improving freight infrastructure needs to be addressed sooner than later. 


While funding will remain a considerable issue, transportation professionals and stakeholders are showing that engineering innovation can meet many of the infrastructure and congestion challenges. One successful program is the Every Day Counts Initiative. 

In August 2012, testing began on the Route 495 Express Lanes outside Washington, D.C. The lanes, which opened ahead of schedule this past November, will help alleviate congestion on the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia.

This U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration program, which kicked off in 2010, is working urgently to identify and deploy innovation aimed at shortening project delivery; enhancing the safety of roadways; and protecting the environment. The goal is better, faster and smarter project delivery—understanding, however, that funding will be a constraint and that the public needs to know how they are being served with their tax dollars.

The Every Day Counts Initiative is already proving effective. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation applied it to its 93 Fast 14 Project, which used prefabricated bridge elements and systems (PBES) to replace superstructures on 14 bridges along I-93 in Medford, Mass. A job this size normally would take at least five years to complete, causing road closures and disruptions to traffic flow. Using PBES enabled this project to replace the 14 bridges in a single construction season (just ten weekends between June and August 2011) dramatically reducing the total delivery time and cost. Bridges were safely and quickly replaced, while major impacts to travelers were limited to off-peak hours, keeping congestion to a minimum. Other states, such as Iowa and Maryland, have successfully shortened bridge replacement times on recent large scale projects using PBES. 

Another tool being promoted through the Every Day Counts Initiative is adaptive signal control technologies (ASCT), which can use real-time traffic information to determine exactly which lights should be red and which should be green. ASCT is an effective, low-cost solution that reduces travel time, travel delays, the number of stops and fuel consumption. The program is providing agencies with a systematic process to guide ASCT implementation. Every Day Counts created an immediate need for guidance and sustained technical assistance to help agencies and FHWA division offices effectively navigate through a Systems Engineering process that balances needs and priorities against available resources. 


Just outside the nation’s capital another innovative project is demonstrating the positive trends making a difference in surface transportation. A new 14-mi stretch of high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in Virginia on the Capital Beltway opened in November 2012 ahead of schedule, after being announced in 2011 as a way to improve access to major employment centers and military sites. 

The new lanes can be utilized for free by buses, motorcyclists, emergency vehicles, and vehicles carrying at least three people. The HOT lanes do not have toll booths, so all vehicles that use it must be equipped with E-ZPass. The lanes will be open 24 hours per day, seven days a week. While the project significantly improves circulation, implementation needs to be considered in Maryland to achieve the maximum traffic flow benefit. Regional collaboration will be key in moving these and other critical congestion-reducing strategies forward. 


There is increased recognition that building new capacity is no longer a practical solution to increased congestion. Transportation professionals are focusing on engineering innovations and better management and operations techniques to increase the safety and efficiency of the systems already in place. Going forward, maintenance and operations costs need to be figured into the package when projects are proposed. Maintenance, because it is a behind-the-scenes activity, can be harder to sell compared to a public ribboncutting. There must be a shift in mentality supporting the need for proper, ongoing maintenance that will lead to greater overall savings, efficiency and safety. 

ITE remains committed to its mission to enable the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, with its members working diligently to provide a surface transportation system that meets the nation’s needs…both now and in the future. 

Michelle S. Birdsall is Public Information Manager, Institute of Transportation Engineers; 202-785-0060 Ext. 139, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.