THE BREAK DOWN - Road Work Ahead, part 5: What's being done to avoid another infrastructure crisis

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America is in the midst of an infrastructure crisis. In the five-part series "The Break Down: Road Work Ahead," this crisis -- with a focus on our roads -- is examined, along with the costs and solutions to remedy the problem.
By Al Jones and Steve Burns

NEW YORK (1010 WINS) -- Over 60 plus years ago, the dream for America’s highway system was the orderly, rapid movement of shiny sleek vehicles traveling 100 miles an hour on roads that connected population centers. Today, that long ago dream seems like a scene from a cartoon. In reality, our roads are a rough, hot mess.

Former New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says our roads today are more like “a sea of red lights." But visionaries like Sadik-Kahn say they are beginning to see a change. That future we have dreamed about is beginning to take shape with a perfect storm of new technologies and new business models transforming not only our vehicles, but everything about how we get around — a shared mobility melded into how we live our lives.

Take autonomous cars. While they are still far from ready to take over our roads, we are seeing them in more real-live test scenarios, like at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where earlier this year a company called Optimus Ride rolled out their driverless shuttles serving a small tech community in Red Hook.

Dr. Ryan Chin, co-founder and CEO of Optimus Ride, says, “You have to start some place and we thought the Brooklyn Navy Yard is the best place to start."

Dr. Chin says the company expects to serve “close to 20,000 people a month over the next two years serving their pre-set route." The controlled environment allows them to use high-tech laser and camera technology to absorb countless bits of data along every trip to build a database to help the vehicles how to predict movement. Ride-sharing companies are especially interested in test programs like this one to see if they can figure out the best way to deploy and share this technology.

Part 1: THE OVERVIEW: Why America's infrastructure crisis is so problematic

Part 2: CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS: From wasted time & money to lost lives, crunching the numbers of the infrastructure crisis

Part 3: THE COST: How much will it cost to fix the nation's roads ... and who will pay for it?

Part 4: SOLUTIONS: How some cities, states are fixing their infrastructure crisis

Part 5: THE FUTURE: How do we avoid the mess we are currently in and how will the future of our transportation needs be served

Another way city planners are looking at reducing congestion city streets? Reduce the number of cars. 

Harriet Tregoning, of the New Urban Mobility Alliance in Washington, D.C., says self-driving vehicles may help but she cautions they are not the universal answer. She sees the autonomous technology being used in “places where trips are long and where there’s not a lot of variation in the environment … like a dedicated lane on a freeway."

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Tregoning believes that ultimately when it comes to moving large amounts of people there is no substitute for a workable mass transit system. Emphasis on “workable." After decades of increases, mass transit ridership has been falling in almost every major metro area over the last five to 10 years. It’s especially bad in cities with older systems.

From 2014 to 2017, ridership was down in Boston by 6.5 percent, New York down 3 percent, Chicago down almost 7 percent. Experts partly blame those ride-share companies with potential transit riders instead turning to private cars. But app-based driving companies aren’t seen as a bona fide transportation solution. Planners believe their unchecked growth will only make congestion worse.

But many of those transit agencies have also faced a crisis of funding, leading to more deteriorating equipment and less dependable service. For instance, as trains continue rumbling through the 109-year-old tunnel under the Hudson River, plans for a new one remain tangled up in red tape, with the Trump administration in March downgrading the multi-billion dollar Gateway Project, that includes plans to fix the tunnels and replace the Portal Bridge, to low-to-moderate priority.

Bringing transit back to its former glory will of course take more money, and a lot of community buy-in, especially in how those communities are built. In the words of one expert, “office parks are dead."

“Those separated office parks and shopping centers and homes have meant more traffic than we can handle," said Stewart Schwartz, from the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington, D.C.

Schwartz believes the current trend is the future, with more people simply wanting to live closer to work and reliable transportation. He describes the new trend as “people are paying far more per square foot for homes in convenient locations."

Sadik-Khan is a believer as well. She says, “When you have compact land use that is better for everyone … and the cost goes down."

Local governments are beginning to recognize this, with more mixed use developments popping up — a combination of office and retail space, housing and of course, transit, moving away from what had been the American ideal: the house and picket fence in a quiet suburb, putting more distance between you and the rest of the world.

The typical house most of us grew up in is known in zoning language as the single family house. And some places are discouraging any more of them, including in Minneapolis which just voted to end exclusive neighborhood zoning that allowed for only single family homes.

And then there is the car. After a steady post-recession rise, car sales have leveled off, stagnant since 2015. Tregoning says the lure of car ownership may be a generational thing. But weaning Americans off car ownership won’t be easy,  nor will it happen overnight.

Joe Cutrufo is with Transportation Alternatives, an organization that advocates for better mass transit, bicycling and walking. He has a solution that won’t be popular with those of us in the habit of hopping into the car to drive to work in the city. He says if we want to reduce pollution and congestion, “We need to put a price on driving."  In New York, that's called "congestion pricing" and, like it or not, we’re just over a year away from it. While it will certainly not be popular with drivers, planners and traffic experts believe it will be necessary.

“There’s a point where driving needs to be the less convenient option," Cutrufo said.

After all of this, it’s clear that it’s not just our roads that are crumbling, but so too is a way of life that has left us stuck in a vicious cycle of delays and decay.

"Building more roads just builds more congestion, and we've seen this," Sadik-Khan said. "We need to provide ways to make it possible for people to get around without having to have a car. But you can't wish them onto a bus, or a bike, or walking. You have to provide high quality, attractive infrastructure for them to be able to do that."

She calls them levers and knobs — small changes that can be made to influence your behavior in the vast transportation ecosystem. Whether it’s charging a toll, putting in a protected bike lane, or giving you a few extra seconds to cross the street, she says cities can do any number of things to shape their own destiny in the face of our infrastructure crisis.

"What's the city we want to see? When we open the door in 2025, 2030, what's the kind of city that we want to see? Let's start there and work backward from there, not just keep doing the same thing over and over again, and just filling the potholes as if that's the highest and best outcome," Sadik-Khan added.

A steady source of funding is needed, but it will be a combination of new, disruptive strategies, and revolutionary leaps in technology that will lead us around….. the Roadwork Ahead.