From Concrete to Chips: Bringing the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act Into the Digital Age

Congress should make investment in and deployment of intelligent transportation systems a principle focus of the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act.

Next-generation information and communications technologies (IT) are set to revolutionize America’s transportation system. Whether it is the emergence of innovative connected vehicles or intelligent infrastructure, the future of transportation lies not just in building new roads but in bringing intelligence to every asset in the U.S. transportation network—from roadways and private vehicles to commercial truck fleets and public transit systems—thereby making transportation safer, more accessible, and more efficient. Accordingly, it is time for U.S. transportation policy—principally enshrined through the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act—to reflect this shift from “concrete” to “chips”: in other words, to comprehensively integrate IT into America’s surface transportation system.

This report examines the promise of IT-enabled smart transportation systems and vehicles and proposes a number of policy principles and recommendations for how Congress can leverage the 2015 Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill to advance the development and deployment of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and automated vehicle technologies. By bringing efficiencies to existing transportation assets and systems, ITS solutions deliver the most “bang for the buck” on each dollar the federal government invests in transportation. Put simply, it is time for policymakers to view ITS as the 21st-century, digital equivalent of the Interstate Highway System, with the federal government again taking the lead in declaring a vision, investing in research and development (R&D), developing standards and technologies, shifting incentives to favor the deployment of technology-enabled solutions, constructing a regulatory framework that encourages the deployment of ITS and automated vehicle technologies, and providing the funding necessary to support deployment of these solutions.

This report provides an overview of the wide range of IT-enabled transportation technologies being implemented today and then describes the five key classes of benefits they enable before turning to a discussion of the policy principles and specific policy recommendations that should guide thinking about the 2015 Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill. The following summarizes the report’s policy recommendations:

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) should develop a comprehensive innovation strategy that articulates how it can promote the rapid deployment and adoption of proven intelligent transportation systems across the United States.

Congress should enact a new “Cement & Chips” funding approach that directs no less than 5 percent (approximately $2.5 billion) of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) allocated to states to be devoted to digital and ITS-based infrastructure projects.

Congress should create a new competition program called Race to the Digital Top that awards funding to a select group of six U.S. communities—two small, two mid-size, and two large—to build a comprehensive “smart communities” model.

Congress should ensure that ITS-related implementations are immediately eligible for funding under the existing highway transportation authorization.

Congress should tie a share of federal surface transportation funding to states’ actual improvements in transportation system performance.

Congress should lower the share of federal funding for non-toll projects from the current 80 percent to 60 percent, while funding the full 80 percent for toll projects, providing a stronger incentive for state toll projects.

Congress should authorize a total of $1 billion in pre-construction feasibility assessment grants designed to address a key obstacle that states and localities face in advancing user fee-backed projects.

Congress should direct the administration to launch two new Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs), the first an industry-led intelligent vehicles and infrastructure consortium led by the Department of Transportation, and the second an IMI for surface transportation materials innovation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation should create an organization that facilitates an interstate dialogue on ITS technologies, including vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) systems and autonomous vehicle regulations so that state officials don’t lock in to suboptimal or non-interoperable systems ITS systems, including VMT systems.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) should undertake a comprehensive review of existing federal automotive standards, regulations, and policies that present barriers to a competitive marketplace for intelligent transportation systems and emerging vehicular technology development, along with recommendations for removing or mitigating such barriers.

The White House should convene a meeting of representatives from state Departments of Transportation to spur the creation of high-value, dynamic traffic data sets and application program interfaces (APIs) to be hosted at data.gov.

The U.S. Department of Transportation should undertake to scale innovative local software and app-based ITS solutions nationally, such as by supporting the provision of shared IT infrastructure, such as cloud storage.

The White House should organize a competition to identify the 20 best such applications and task a nonprofit, such as Code for America, to take applications initially developed for individual cities and code them for use on a national basis.