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Why tweeting potholes and smart bridges won’t solve our infrastructure problems

Heavy traffic at rush hour on the Interstate 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, CaliforniaHeavy traffic at rush hour on the Interstate 10 Freeway in Los Angeles, California
Will you be comfortable in a new life with higher pay —and higher traffic?Photograph by Jonathan Alcorn — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last month, an advertising agency in Panama debuted a ‘tweeting pothole’—a small disc that could be placed in a road defect, and would tweet a maintenance request to the nation’s Department of Public Works whenever it was driven over. The stunt went viral in the U.S., a testament to the global nature of infrastructure frustration—and a hint at the ways technology can help.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than one fourth of major urban roads in the U.S. are rated in substandard or poor condition, and over 67,000 bridges are either closed or under use restrictions. Legislative shortsightedness has left federal highway funding subject to a series of stopgap bills that are hamstringing state-level efforts to plan for needed improvements, and even basic maintenance.

Dysfunctional highways cost all Americans, but the trucking industry catches the brunt. “We pay a penalty for rough roads,” says Darrin Roth, vice president of highway policy for the American Trucking Association. Roth says potholes mean higher maintenance costs and lower fuel efficiency, while disruptions like bridge failures and wrecks add to emissions, labor costs, and the chance for accidents.

The ATA found that congestion caused by inadequate or closed roads cost the industry about $9.21 billion in 2013, a 1.4 percent increase in congestion waste over 2012. 141 million hours were lost. That’s the equivalent of 51,000 truck drivers—and their chugging trucks—stuck in traffic for the entire year.

On Main Street, that adds up to about $29 per year in added costs to each American.

The tweeting pothole, in its scaled-down way, suggests tech’s power to help. Providing an early alert, through Twitter or more formal channels, can keep a small fault from becoming a big one, or from causing too much damage or disruption in the meantime.

This is even more important for bridges. In 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in the heart of Minneapolis collapsed—a failure the National Transportation Safety Board attributed to a combination of design flaws and excess weight. In addition to killing 13 people, the collapse rerouted about 140,000 daily vehicle trips for more than a year.

When it was rebuilt as the St. Anthony Falls Bridge, the I-35 span was turned into a “smart bridge” using 500 sensors measuring bridge loads, movement, and integrity. The data is monitored for signs of degradation by researchers at the University of Minnesota, in what amounts to a beefed-up version of the tweeting pothole.

Another important gridlock-busting technology is traffic monitoring cameras and high-tech urban traffic centers. The cameras allow much faster clearing of accidents from highways, which according to Roth is one of the most important ways to increase highway shipping efficiency.

Traffic centers also help manage urban traffic flow by timing lights. While these are traditionally manual affairs, the Pittsburgh-based startup Surtrac is demonstrating 25% reduced travel times with its swarmlike approach to ‘smart’ traffic signaling.

Even in the absence of street-level tech, truckers carry potential efficiencies in their pockets—literally. Just like the rest of us, smartphones help truckers plan routes as traffic and driving conditions shift. And trucks go one better, with systems able to plan things like acceleration based on topographic databases.

All that high-tech efficiency might dull the pain as states skip expensive lane expansions and even maintenance. But as Roth points out, a navigation system “doesn’t solve the problem if all the alternative routes are congested.”

Most of the roads we travel on, Roth says, are still rooted in the time of their construction in the 1950s and 1960s, when traffic loads were much lighter. It’ll take Congress, not Google Maps, to give us the highways we need.