On the road: Can America unjam?

I left sclerotic I-95 for SEPTA 10 years back. But true-believer road engineer Ananth Prasad, the former Florida highways chief who heads engineering contractor HTNB’s transportation group — they’ve been updating U.S. roads and trains since Henry Ford’s day — has me almost believing I could live to see I-76, Pa. 422, N.J. 42, and other jammed arteries pump us smoothly through the workweek if software, auto and construction giants, and government can apply digital tech for public advantage as well as private profits.

We spoke recently at the Kansas City-based firm’s Center City outpost, where Prasad was calling on local clients including PennDot, Amtrak, and area transit, turnpike, and bridge agencies.

I asked: Can the Trump administration really fix America’s aging highways faster than the last gang?

Trump, Prasad told me, has focused on public-private partnerships (P3). That kind of up-front private financing, boosted by tax breaks, “could advance big projects.”

“But, unfortunately, this will not solve the problem,” he said. We’ll still need public dollars to pay back private investors’ costs, plus profits. “If you don’t want to raise taxes or fees or tolls in the first place, how are you going to raise the money for P3?”

(Trump appointees have already speeded environmental reviews and expanded federal incentives to promote P3 financing for “dilapidated social infrastructure” such as “schools, public buildings, broadband internet, and water” projects, said Frank M. Rapoport, Berwyn-based chief strategist for the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure, a builders’ and investors’ lobbying group.)

What about political promises to cut construction costs? “I’d challenge anybody to make those efficiencies total 5 percent,” Prasad said. “Squeezing the government, streamlining, is not going to solve the problem. It’s not going to generate you a revenue stream.”

This isn’t a partisan question, he said: Under Republicans or Democrats, “public contracts are procured competitively. A low bid intrinsically gives you the lowest price the market can bear while paying equipment, labor and reasonable profit.”

What about labor? Are upstate Pennsylvania legislators right that federal Davis-Bacon Act trade-wage minimums make projects too expensive?

“Maybe it’s time for us to look at raising the wages to get the talent in,” Prasad countered.  “Florida, Texas, and Georgia [states with low unionization] have made huge highway-funding increases. And now they can’t find people with the skills to stripe their roads.”

He applauds Trump’s call for more apprenticeships. But, citing data from the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association, he doubts U.S. programs can train enough people for all the projects. “At some point, if you can’t get that workforce, you have to look at foreign labor. That’s right now in big discussions.”

Driverless vehicles could increase road use and reduce transit demand, Prasad said. “Pennsylvania is really engaged in the tech revolution with automated vehicles and connected vehicles. In Pittsburgh, you have the Carnegie Mellon and Uber infrastructure. It’s as profound as the iPhone revolution 10 years ago.”

There are many barriers to the smart-road vision. With the federal gas tax set at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, the interstate maintenance fund is broke.

“Meanwhile, the government says you can’t toll interstates. … If Congress doesn’t want to allow states to toll, and if it won’t raise the gas tax, either? Maybe we get rid of the federal gas tax and let the states assume the responsibility of keeping up the infrastructure.”

Indeed, since 2012, more than 30 states have raised motor-fuel taxes. “In New Jersey, they have a ‘lockbox’ for the gas tax, so you know the money you pay really is used for transportation. But in Pennsylvania [about $800 million a year] of the state’s gasoline tax is diverted to the state police.” Pennsylvania’s gas tax is now 58.3 cents a gallon, the nation’s highest. And the new electric cars don’t pay fuel taxes.

In recent years, Washington’s traditional highway lobby — truckers, asphalt and concrete makers — has been joined by tech giants and tech-charged automakers in arguing to prevent the government from giving away the 5.9 GHz radio signal, set aside for connected-vehicle technology, to mobile-phone and video companies hungry for bandwidth.

Prasad marvels at this broad coalition. “The Googles and Apples of the world, there’s so much investment they have made in coming up with the smartphone and its applications. Those companies have to keep innovating.”

Smart cars are next: “If it’s part of an intelligent transportation system, that’s good for the tech companies. So you get all these firms to spend a lot of money to go into the next space. And stay relevant. Or they will turn into Blockbuster Video.”