Late Tuesday, with federal transportation funding set to run dry by the end of the week, the U.S. Senate approved a funding patch that would stem the tide through mid-December. That stands in contrast to a House-approved patch that would fund transportation through May. The Senate hopes the earlier deadline will motivate Congress to craft a long-term plan this term—a rather optimistic goal, considering it can't even agree on a short-term fix with a construction shutdown staring it in the face.
There are a bundle of cynical reasons why Congress has struggled to craft a reasonable long-term transportation plan in recent years, but there's also a pretty valid one that doesn't get enough attention: The United States lacks a national infrastructure agenda.
For decades, the federal government had a clear role in U.S. transportation—namely, to fund the interstate highway system. The national interest was obvious in this case, with all Americans benefitting from improved interstate commerce and mobility, so it made sense for Congress to take the funding lead. But that system is built out (and, in some metro areas, overbuilt), and its likeliest successor, a national high-speed rail system, is a complete non-starter to one political party.
That leaves federal lawmakers in unfamiliar territory. For most of them, the desire to oversee a national transportation program is still there; on Tuesday, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a plan that would gradually devolve responsibility for transportation funding to the states, 69-28. But there's no car to drive, or ship to captain, or plane to pilot, or train to conduct—whatever your preferred metaphorical transport vehicle, Congress sees no place at its helm.
That said, there's a legitimate infrastructure program staring us (quite literally, unless you've printed this out) right in the face: digital networks.
A National Internet System, or whatever it might be called, would seem to be the most logical modern equivalent to the National Highway System. True, most Americans can already get online, but as we pointed out last year, a startling number of rural residents lack minimal broadband access, and service in major U.S. metros lags behind world-class cities. The F.C.C. recently estimated that 100 million Americans don't subscribe to broadband—a third of the population. In other words, there's potential for interest here from federal officials all along the political spectrum.
The question then becomes whether you consider broadband to be transportation, per se, and thus eligible to receive federal transportation dollars. In a strict literal sense, your answer might be no, but it's not really that much of a stretch to think of going online as the digital version of a road trip. You might not be physically leaving your seat, but you are, in a way, sending a microscopic envoy on an errand for information. You are engaging with something or someone that resides somewhere else.
Semantics aside, there's a clear case for treating communication as transportation in American history. In colonial times, they were one and the same. The very first roads in this country were postal routes; Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides for the establishment of "post offices and post roads" because the concepts of message and movement were intertwined then, even if they seem quite distinct today.
And consider that Congress didn't always consider road-building its job, either. Even by the closing years of the 19th century, many individual states bristled at the concept of a federal transportation program, preferring to maintain roads themselves. ("Texas can boast the best roads, with the least work, of any State in or out of the Union," state officials said in response to a federal road push in 1868.) The first federal road funding doesn't appear until 1893, and even then it would be years before a true federal road program emerged.
Nor is the idea of a federal infrastructure program based on broadband mere food for thought among transport historians. Earlier this month, during a keynote talk at the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin, Eric Hysen of Google made an explicit reference to yesterday's transportation with respect to tomorrow's technology. Hysen compared the digital capabilities of the modern era with colonial stagecoaches: limited by the second-rate routes they traverse:
We have produced incredible, innovative technologies, but they are being prevented from achieving maximum impact because we lack necessary public infrastructure. We don't have good roads to drive our stagecoaches on.
Hysen went on to say that it's time for countries to build the digital equivalent of "long-distance highways." He suggests private companies take the lead— modern-day British Turnpike Trusts—but there's no reason the federal government couldn't jump in first (or, as well). Building off that line of thought, Brown historian Jo Guldi challenged private and public entities alike to build the "material pipes through which information flows":
In the eighteenth century, those pipes were the roads, which carried state-coaches, which carried mail, parcels, and newspapers, thus generating an information revolution. In the twenty-first century, those pipes are broadband cable. Thus far, Google has been content to stand by while Cox and Comcast monopolize broadband across America (practically everywhere except Knoxville, TN and Lafayette, LA) and become pushy in international conversations, thus jeapardizing the relationship of the entire Global South to an open internet. In practice, the Cox/Comcast monopoly means profits hand-over-fist for those who own the pipes, with almost no incentive to lay new pipes to poor people.
It's precisely that incentive—material pipes for all Americans—that should propel a national public works program. Guldi ends by saying it's "time to think big" about digital infrastructure. She's right. But there are lots of calls for Congress to think big when it comes to transportation, and few suggestions as to how. Let a coast-to-coast broadband system start the discussion. When Congress talks about a national infrastructure initiative, this is the type of thing it should be talking about.