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Exploring American Transportation Infrastructure and its Future

While today there are numerous highways spanning the United States of America organized in north-south and east-west, traveling across the states initially required going over confusing dirt roads, poorly labeled and kept. 


The Federal Highway Act of 1925 organized the existing roads, grouping many into the federal interstate highway system with uniform signage and branding. While the roadways were easier to navigate, there was not enough for the increased automobile traffic, especially post-WWI. 


One of President Eisenhower’s goals while in office was to fix the interstate highway system, especially after seeing the effects of the navigable roads in Nazi Germany. One of the main goals of the infrastructure bill he put out was a navigable system for federal defense. Tunnels and bridges on the interstate system measured to fit tanks underneath them in case of a national emergency. 


The Federal Highway Act of 1956 had authorized funding for construction of the interstate highway system, with most of the budget coming from the federal government. These highways permanently altered American community setups, as towns and rest stops sprung up near the roadways. Many newly constructed highways cut through poorer (and often black) neighborhoods, destroying those communities and forcing their residents to find new housing. 


Some cities are removing the interstate highways altogether, changing them into boulevards. The removals are part of urban revitalization, making cities more pedestrian-focused and walkable. 


The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) has worked with this initiative to make cities more livable with the Highways to Boulevards project, which advocates for replacing highways with roads having sidewalks, giving residents the ability to travel without cars. The CNU works around the globe, including in the United States, and has had numerous successful Highways to Boulevards projects. 


According to a press release from the White House, one in five highways are currently in poor condition. A road in poor condition might be riddled with potholes, have cracks in the pavement, have unclear or unreadable signage, and shoulder drop-offs. 

Roads in poor conditions can lead to car accidents, not only harming people in the accidents but costing cities and governments thousands when those injured sue because of the poor road conditions. 


Two years ago, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, dedicating 350 billion dollars to infrastructure in the United States, including roads in disrepair.


Everyday, American cars are consistently threatened by potholes, forming from the melting ice that expands under roads. Billions of dollars go towards patching the holes, a temporary solution that can lead to uneven streets.


Professor Lu at Purdue, in partnership with the Indiana Department of Transportation, is working on solutions for the yearly freeze-thaw cycle of potholes. Now in Indiana, wireless sensors that she and her team developed allow the concrete to monitor its strength and sense when it needs time to repair itself. The sensors can also track when the concrete needs to be replaced. 


The professor and her team are working on self-healing concrete that can seal its cracks and regain strength. The healed concrete would have less water penetrate it, reducing the likelihood of it needing repair again. This would allow the concrete to last longer, reducing overall costs for infrastructure and construction. 


Some of the investment goes towards bridges, also constructed as part of the Federal Highway Act of 1956. About 40% of American bridges are over half a century old, and the more cars drive over them, the further their conditions will deteriorate. 

To combat the deteriorating state of bridges, President Biden announced a Bridge Investment Plan dedicated to investing in building new bridges and repairing or improving others, including making repairs to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge investment is the largest developed since the aforementioned Eisenhower investments in 1956. 


Besides roads, there is no easy alternative for Americans who want to travel. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK), founded in 1971, has been profitable because of the subsidies from the federal government, despite the subsidization having been intended to be short-term. Most tracks bring no profit, with most revenue coming from the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington D.C.). 


Twenty-two billion dollars of investment from the Infrastructure Act will be towards improving AMTRAK rail systems, the largest investment from the federal government since AMTRAK was founded. 


AMTRAK released a 15-year plan to increase its ability to serve more passengers by expanding into rural and urban areas, titled Amtrak Connects Us. This plan will expand the tracks and create more jobs in the transportation industry. 


In looking to the future, the United States has recognized the necessity of implementing climate-friendly transportation infrastructure. Its effects are already impacting the infrastructure, as sections of Highway 1 in California have collapsed because of severe weather. The AMTRAK 15-year vision addresses the need to lower carbon emissions, listing it as one of the benefits of expanding railway infrastructure. 


According to their page, the U.S. Department of Transportation is committed to being part of President Biden’s plan to lower carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 by focusing on land planning that is not automobile-centric, investing in public transportation like AMTRAK and promoting renewable energy. 


According to their 2021 Climate Action Plan, the Department of Transportation also plans to make infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise along the Gulf Coast. Buildings would also be more protected from the effects of climate change to reduce the vulnerability of those working inside. 


The future of the United States has a lot to contend with, with numerous roads currently in poor condition and the effects of climate change that are already starting to damage it (that will only get worse with time). But government funding plans to make the infrastructure more resilient and new ideas from people and organizations that envision new forms of infrastructure may lead to a bright future for the transportation systems that hold America together.


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