With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) well into its second year, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is working to launch remaining programs and projects authorized by the law. One such program is the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Infrastructure (ARPA-I). ARPA-I is a welcome addition to DOT’s research and development toolbox, with the potential to unleash transformative technological change in the transportation sector after years of underinvestment in this area.
Modeled after DARPA in the Department of Defense and ARPA-E within the Department of Energy, ARPA-I was created to invest in technologies that will lower the long-term costs of transportation infrastructure development; reduce environmental impacts of infrastructure; contribute to the safe, secure, and efficient movement of goods and people; and promote resilience from physical and cyber threats, while positioning the U.S. as a global leader in advanced transportation technologies and materials. Despite its broad name, ARPA-I will only fund transportation-related projects and, unlike other recent initiatives at DOT, it will focus only on technology—not on policies, processes, or regulations.
BPC has long supported the ARPA model for technology development and has recommended using it to spur innovation in other sectors such as water. The model brings several advantages, including the ability to invest in high-risk, high-reward research that might not otherwise proceed and flexibility in hiring and decision-making. By the tenth anniversary of ARPA-E, its projects had attracted $2.9 billion in private sector funding and created 76 new companies. DARPA, the agency on which both ARPA-E and ARPA-I were modeled, is credited with developing GPS and the Internet, among other things.
As DOT launches ARPA-I, the agency has requested comments on what types of projects it should fund. Ideas are requested for “new and emerging areas of innovation, including external early-stage research and development” in five specific areas—safety, advanced construction materials and methods, digital infrastructure, freight and logistics optimization, and climate and resilience—as well as any other areas aligned with ARPA-I’s mission. DOT notes that it is already engaged in many types of R&D through its existing programs, and commenters should explain how their ideas for ARPA-I would complement, but not duplicate, those efforts. Comments are due within 45 days.
ARPA-I has thus far received only an initial appropriation of $3.2 million from Congress. If its predecessors are any guide, funding this agency will ultimately generate a significant return on investment as improvements in infrastructure delivery and efficiency are realized.
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