Infrastructure Week 2019: The state of American roadways today and tomorrow

May 13, 2019

Lessons that will allow us to #BuildForTomorrow, create more sustainable communities, and move more efficiently


The 7th annual Infrastructure Week runs from May 13th - 20th, 2019 and is united around one message: "America’s future will be shaped by the infrastructure choices we make today. So let’s #BuildForTomorrow." Stantec’s Roadways Sector Leader Nick Bokaie describes the state of American roadways today and what we can expect from the roadways of the future. This Q&A blog is part of a 5-part series for Infrastructure Week 2019.


What is your perspective on US Infrastructure, the D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the current state of roads?

Our Infrastructure grade point average (GPA) for the US has been hovering around a D or D+ since the grades started in 1998—which in academic terms could be considered a failure.

_q_tweetable:I've been in this business for 35 years and one thing that has been constant is the underfunding of our infrastructure._q_

Roadways specifically are a D, and I can certainly see why. ASCE’s evaluation takes into account capacity, funding, and maintenance when they make these grades. Both our urban and rural roads are very congested, lacking in maintenance with potholes, and facing drainage problems, which could create safety issues. We now have more vehicles on the road than ever before with the same roadway system from 10 or 15 years ago. If you translate the delays into dollar amounts, consider this: As you are spending more time on congested roadways, you waste a lot more fuel to get to the same destination than you used to. ASCE converted this statistic into a $160 billion per year impact for 2014, in terms of wasted time and fuel to drivers—and that's just roadways.


What are our burning priorities on infrastructure investment, from your perspective?

We need to fix the funding problem to begin with. I've been in this business for 35 years and one thing that has been constant is the underfunding of our infrastructure.

Federal investment in highways—the Highway Trust Fund—receives money from a federal fuel tax. Back in 1993, this tax was 18.4 cents per gallon. That figure is still the same today—more than 25 years later. So if we deduct for inflation, you're talking about practically 11 cents per gallon in today’s dollar.

Our Infrastructure investment has not kept up with demand, congestion, and population growth. And there's been a lot of discussion about how to address the funding problem and how to do it right.


The Kennedy Interchange (aka Spaghetti Junction) improvements reduced congestion and improved safety in the region’s busiest transportation hub, crossing the Ohio River from Louisville to southern Indiana.


Is there a model out there for what we should be doing in your sector (good financing models, specific projects, etc.)?

One model that’s been discussed for years is mileage-based user fees. Basically, your mileage is tracked on a yearly basis and then you pay a flat fee. I think that's a fair way to go about it. The state of Oregon started a pilot project using this concept in 2015 and it’s been very successful.

This makes sense given other factors, like cars becoming more fuel efficient and the advances in electric cars. You're going to see less and less money coming into this trust fund.


What can we be doing to build roads now?

There have been talks about creating an infrastructure bank that would fund projects as they are needed. The other big idea has been the infusion of private funding, or public private partnerships (P3).

If you look to the north, Canada has a very robust program that utilizes P3s in a much better way than we have in the United States. P3 project usage in the US is roughly about 1 or 2 percent of the expenditure in public infrastructure, whereas in Europe and Canada the figure is much larger.


Stantec is the lead engineer on Houston’s SH288 toll roads, which spans 10.3 miles. The project was designed in just 13 months. Photo credit: Almeda-Genoa Constructors and AeroPhoto.


What do the roadways of the future look like?

I believe the roads of the future are going to be smarter and safer, with more autonomous vehicles on the road to reduce accidents caused by human error. There’s going to be lanes that will charge electric vehicles as they drive through them. There will be pavement markings that use a paint material that’s charged during the day and glows at night. There will be interactive lighting systems that have motion sensors within the pavement so you aren’t lighting the whole roadway at all times, which will be great for reducing light pollution in rural areas. There will also be temperature-controlled roads to address freezing and thawing as well as other safety issues.


How do you see Smart Cities and technologies fitting into road construction and maintenance?

Smart cities utilize technology and data to create an efficient and sustainable environment for their residents. As they relate to roadways, these cities use this data in a smart way to benefit residents and commuters. For example, roads with sensors that give transportation authorities a warning that certain segment of the road is aging and needs repairs. Smart Cities will improve safety and provide better traffic management by gathering data across the entire roadway network and alerting drivers of real time hazards and unsafe situations.

When I look at smart city rankings, the top three—New York, London, and Paris—are also some of the oldest, with incredibly complex and aging infrastructure. But they have adapted and have created systems that are responsive and are supporting residents. Let’s look to these cities and see how we can learn from them.


Other blogs in this series:

Infrastructure Week 2019: The future of green infrastructure

Infrastructure Week 2019: Brownfield development is the future of the US urban landscape

Infrastructure Week 2019: Parks as infrastructure—providing resilience and quality of life

Infrastructure Week 2019: The state of American transit today and tomorrow


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