For decades, transportation advocates and leaders in Washington have tried unsuccessfully to deliver a funding bill of the magnitude required to repair the country's crumbling roads and bridges, address the growing issues of road safety, congestion, inequity and emissions, and invest in the infrastructure to support 21st century innovations, such as electric and autonomous vehicles and a growing number of micromobility options.
In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineer's Report Card for America's Infrastructure, gave US roads and transit respective grades of D and D-. Despite the critical need for funding, it's been three decades since Congress last addressed the inadequacy of the federal gas tax. This tax is the primary source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which funds much of the federal government spending for highways and transit. However, increased vehicle fuel efficiency and inflation have made this an insufficient mechanism for covering our country's transportation needs.
Based on these factors, the case for swift and substantial bipartisan action would seem clear. However, since the turn of the century, Congress has repeatedly opted for short-term funding patches to shore up the HTF, kicking the proverbial can down the road and delaying the necessary hefty investment required to maintain economic competitiveness and the safety of road users.
All of this changed last year when Congress voted to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), a once-in-a-generation investment in our transportation system and a major commitment to repairing our crumbling roads, bridges, railways, airports, waterways, and more. Once President Biden signed the $1.2 trillion bill into law, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) immediately started laying the groundwork to distribute these funds as quickly and effectively as possible.
Three big themes standout from the USDOT's efforts when considering how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) will impact the national transportation landscape for years to come, specifically:
1. A new "triple bottom line": All transportation projects must now address safety, equity and the environment. These themes were front-and-center in the congressional debate, driven home in the bill's more than 1,000 pages, and omnipresent in the USDOT and the White House's rollout.
2. Discretionary funds: While the bulk of federal transportation funding will continue to flow to states, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), cites, Tribal governments and other jurisdictions through congressionally set formula funds, the BIL also includes more than $100 billion in discretionary funds. Organizations must apply for these funds, which are awarded by the USDOT based on a set of criteria, such as addressing one or more of the three priorities I previously mentioned. These programs provide a substantial amount of control for the USDOT to direct where, to whom, and what sort of projects will receive funding.
3. Data-driven projects: As part of the BIL, the USDOT will require all 50 states, along with regional and local recipients of federal transportation funding, to prioritize data-driven projects that produce meaningful impacts and demonstrate the highest potential to address equity, safety and reductions in carbon emissions.
For a local, state and regional government, transportation planners, and other parties looking to put these new funds to work, it is important to keep these three themes in mind. The cross-cutting questions that each of these parties should ask themselves before applying for funds include:
■ What data do I have?
■ What data do I need to secure funding?
■ What data will best demonstrate the impact of the project?
■ What data is needed to show that a project under a program like Safe Streets and Roads for All actually prevented fatal and serious crashes?
■ What data is needed to quantify how much carbon emissions were prevented by the redesign of a key travel corridor with more efficient timing or electrified fleet?
■ What data is needed to show how access to mobility for traditionally underserved and historically disadvantaged communities has been improved through investments in transit hubs or freight projects?
While $1.2 trillion is a lot of money and five years is a long time, it is imperative that the USDOT and recipients of BIL funding move quickly to inject and center data in the conversation around how this money will be spent.
Congress and the USDOT have taken the critical first steps of outlining what types of projects are eligible for funding and, in many cases, they are setting requirements for what must be measured to demonstrate a project's impact. These guidelines are outlined at a high-level in the legislative text passed by Congress and then were translated into agency guidance for formula funds or notices of funding opportunities (NOFO) published in the federal register by the USDOT. These guidelines provide critical support for a state or other funding recipient as to how to leverage these funds.
For example, the USDOT released the Safe Streets and Roads for All NOFO that explicitly calls out several data-driven elements for a successful application, including:
"Analysis of locations where there are crashes and the severity of the crashes, as well as contributing factors and crash types by relevant road users."
"Underserved communities are identified through data and other analyses in collaboration with appropriate partners."
"[A] method to measure progress over time after an Action Plan is developed or updated, including outcome data."
While this investment in our nation's infrastructure is decades overdue, it fortunately comes at the right time — long-promised breakthroughs in data, insights and analytics are here and connected vehicles are widely available. Together, these two components can help target funds to their best use and allow us to understand, measure and document the impact of these projects.
Despite the requirement to employ data-driven approaches to secure funding, recipients are often left to identify, procure, and crunch the data sources on their own. Most state DOTs and MPOS are likely familiar with data sourcing and data science, however, many cities and smaller road authorities are largely unfamiliar with the process. These regional authorities will need to learn how to source transportation data and effectively allocate resources, all while going through the federal funding process for the first time. The good news is that technology is increasingly coming online to empower this commitment to data-driven investments and there is a growing ecosystem of data experts and solution providers available to help.
For these parties, it will be critical to collaborate with private sector companies, trade associations, and other key stakeholders to tap into this technology and knowledge to deliver on these data-driven requirements. These emerging technologies and resources can provide guidance through the application process and implementation of the project. Specifically, they can help target and measure:
■ The impact of projects using data analysis and insights, including vehicle speeds, volumes, or vulnerable road user information to evaluate impact after a safety focused policy change or project.
■ Signal performance to quantify the impact of an intersection redesign or corridor retiming.
■ Vehicle travel times, congestion reports, or traffic incidents to quantify the impact of repairing roads or bridges.
While we've waited many years for Congress to direct critical funding to our nation's transportation system, the investments that will be made over the next five years — along with the data available to target these funds for maximum impact — are poised to dramatically improve our transportation system and make American mobility safer, greener and more efficient.