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Credit: Photo: Illinois Tollway

Vehicles breeze through open-road tolling lanes at the Irving Park Road Toll Plaza on Interstate 294; the lanes opened in November 2005.

When the highway bill (SAFETEA-LU) finally passed last summer, some believed—perhaps naively—the federal government was at last providing sufficient funding for America's highways. That, unfortunately, was not the case. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association's analysis states that “... SAFETEA-LU investment levels will fall short of meeting the highway and transit needs documented in repeated government reports ...”

Funds allocated through SAFETEA-LU, and currently available state and local dollars, will only begin to solve the persistent problems of congested highways and deteriorating bridges. Addressing the technological and funding gaps will take imagination, and the courage and will to take risks.

That is beginning to happen. For example, the Connecticut DOT is studying whether to bring back tolls—but not with a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach. They are looking at charging more during rush hour (congestion tolling) or for traveling in express lanes. In Illinois, open-road tolling is all the rage, making it possible for motorists to pay electronically without even having to slow down. Many people would be willing to pay more for this convenience, but Illinois tolls are actually less for those using this service. Motorists are so happy, some even sport “I Love My I-Pass” stickers on their car bumpers.

Measures like these, though, are low-risk tweaks to problems that demand revolutionary approaches. Along comes civil engineer Mark Capron, challenging the nation's thinkers and transportation planners to figure out ways for cars to talk with one another, which he says on his Web site (www.conversantcars.com) will “prevent traffic accidents, eliminate traffic congestion, reduce air pollution, make walking and bicycling safer, reduce imported oil dependence, avoid increased taxes, improve education, fight obesity, and more.” A bit of hyperbole never hurts, but his ideas actually are reasonable, albeit so outside the mainstream that many will write him off as a kook or shyster. If this country is going to continue to flourish in these times of limited funds and steadily increasing traffic, though, it's going to take vision and risk taking. Don't dismiss the wild ideas out of hand—one of them could change our world.

This will be my last editorial for PUBLIC WORKS. Working on PW has been an honor, taking me back to the environmental issues I studied so hard in graduate school when I'd thought I would someday become a water treatment design engineer. Life takes unexpected turns, and I ended up in the concrete business, to which I now return to work full time on CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION magazine—also published by Hanley Wood's commercial construction group. With the April issue, Jason Meyers takes the reins as editor in chief of PUBLIC WORKS. Please contact Jason with your ideas, comments, and questions at jmeyers@hanleywood.com or 630-705-2594.

Bill Palmer
Editor in Chief