Bruce Seely
Historian Bruce Seely has long been fascinated by America's highways and their tangled politics. Now he argues for a policy that integrates all forms of transport, from autos to airlines to urban mass transit.
“Infrastructure is more than roads and bridges. It ordains our behavior for generations.”

Transporting America Into the Future

by Jennifer Donovan

A Bandaid can help heal a cut, but it won't hold America's infrastructure together. What we need, says Bruce Seely, is a new way of thinking about—and paying for—the transportation systems that enable today's—and tomorrow's—society and economy to function.

Seely, dean of Michigan Tech's College of Sciences and Arts and a historian of technology, is an expert on infrastructure. In fact, he wrote the book, Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policymakers, which examines the topic, and he has testified before Congress about infrastructure issues.

What is infrastructure? It's mass transportation, the electric power grid, telephone lines and cell phone towers, and water and sewer systems. And roads. The interstate highway system, conceived in the 1930s, begun in the 1950s, essentially completed in the 1990s, is a poster child for infrastructure: a big, complex, expensive network that determines the scope and direction of present and future economic development.

Transportation infrastructure—not just highways, but rail, air, and water transportation systems—is a future investment, Seely recently told the US Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works. "Where you build a system, and how you build it, determines what people can and will do for a long, long time," he points out.

Infrastructure both enables and constrains, Seely says. "Access or no access not only marks where development will take place, it limits and defines your options. Decisions made today are going to impact us in the future in ways we can't even imagine."

Take the interstate highways. They were a long time on the drawing board. Congress authorized—but did not fund—the interstate highway system in 1944. And highway engineers had started planning a network of highways connecting all sections of the nation a decade earlier.

By the time Congress funded the massive project in 1956, the engineers and their heavy construction machines were ready to roll. Their mandate, as they saw it, was to build the new road system as quickly as possible, and they responded to that challenge by slicing through urban neighborhoods and parklands, displacing people, trees, and wildlife habitats indiscriminately.

The resulting pendulum swing was predictable, says Seely. Politicians wrested control of the interstate system from the engineers and kept it for themselves.

That wasn't all bad. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965, a pet project of Lady Bird Johnson, brought aesthetics to roadsides across the nation. Environmental impact studies put the brakes on some ill-conceived projects.

But, in the hands of the politicians, the decision-making process inevitably became more and more politicized. "Roads changed from an investment in our social and economic future to a piece of pork," Seely says.

Now he's concerned that the infrastructure this country needs to compete in a global future is taking a back seat to "bridges to nowhere" and policies that protect special interests and keep the different modes of transportation walled off from each other.

He is also concerned about finding the resources to build new infrastructure and maintain what we already have. Initially, Congress wisely chose to fund the interstate system via gas taxes sequestered in the Highway Trust Fund. But gas tax revenue hasn't kept up with costs, and as we move to more and more fuel-efficient vehicles, taxes become an ever-shrinking resource.

"The funding mechanism based on the gas tax isn't working any more," says Seely. "The Highway Trust Fund could run out of money as early as 2013."

What does Seely suggest?

The enormous cost needs to be spread across the whole of society, he proposes. Private toll roads and other commercial approaches or public-private partnerships will not do the entire job. "If the only solution is strictly market-driven, the broader needs of society—especially the development and maintenance of a complete transportation system—cannot be served," he says.

What is needed is a transportation policy that looks beyond today into the future, Seely continues. And what that future requires is intermodal transportation—linking roads, rail, air, and mass transit into a single, seamless system. (The Michigan Tech Transportation Institute is investigating a similar system for transporting freight in the Great Lakes region. See the related story below.)

Parcel shipping companies like Federal Express and UPS can show us the way. "They don't care how a parcel is moved," Seely points out, "only that it travels as cheaply and quickly as possible."

In the future, "infrastructure will be expected to serve needs we cannot even conceive of today," he says. "We need to develop a far-reaching vision of flexible transportation infrastructure that future generations of Americans will find useful and enabling rather than constraining and constricting."

Michigan tech Transportation Institute: Looking to the Future

The Michigan Tech Transportation Institute (MTTI) is helping blaze a trail to the flexible transportation infrastructure Bruce Seely says this nation needs. Faculty from across campus work together in the institute to develop innovative, multidisciplinary answers to the challenges of transportation today and tomorrow.

MTTI is looking at much more than roads. The institute, headed by Professor Larry Sutter, is expanding its involvement in all modes of transportation. Take railroads, for example. Tech's Rail Transportation Program is gaining national and international attention. Recently, IBM invited Michigan Tech to be a university partner in its new Global Rail Innovation Center in Beijing, China. MTTI researchers are also conducting studies to identify the most efficient ways to move freight through the Great Lakes region, using marine, rail, and road transportation.

"In the industry there is an increasing emphasis on sustainability," said Sutter, "and MTTI is responding by providing solutions that address the social, environmental, and economic impacts of the decisions we make in constructing, maintaining, and utilizing transportation infrastructure." One current research project will provide a framework for assessing the environmental footprint of pavement construction options. Another provides software tools to help transportation agencies monitor the condition of infrastructure assets such as bridges, pavements, culverts, and signage. A better understanding of the environmental footprint of various construction options can lead to more sustainable practices, and asset management tools will allow society to achieve the highest return on the enormous public and private investments in our transportation systems.

For more information, visit MTTI's website.