Collaboration for the Future of Public and Active Transportation


Public and active transportation are not equally accessible to all Americans. Due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure and reliable service for public transportation and active modes like biking, walking, and rolling, Americans must often depend on personal vehicles for travel to work, school, and other activities. During the past two years, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to equitable infrastructure, public transportation upgrades, and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution from transportation across the United States. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and its agencies should embrace innovation and partnerships to continue to increase active and public transportation across the country. The DOT should require grant applications for funding to discuss cross-agency collaborations, partner with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to organize prize competitions, encourage public-private partnerships (P3s), and work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant money for transit programs through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. 

Challenge and Opportunity

Historically, U.S. investment in transportation has focused on expanding and developing highways for personal vehicle travel. As a result, 45% of Americans do not have access to reliable and safe public transportation, perpetuating the need for single-use vehicles for almost half of the country. The EPA reports that transportation accounts for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with 58% of those emissions coming from light-duty cars. This large share of nationwide emissions from personal vehicles has short- and long-term climate impacts. 

Investments in green public and active transit should be a priority for the DOT in transitioning away from a personal-vehicle-dominated society and meeting the Biden Administration’s “goals of a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.” Public and active transportation infrastructure includes bus systems, light rail, bus rapid transit, bike lanes, and safe sidewalks. Investments in public and active transportation should go towards a combination of electrifying existing public transportation, such as buses; improving and expanding public transit to be more reliable and accessible for more users; constructing bike lanes; developing community-owned bike share programs; and creating safe walking corridors. 

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, improved public transportation that disincentivizes personal vehicle use has a variety of co-benefits. Prioritizing public and active transportation could limit congestion on roads and lower pollution. Fewer vehicles on the road result in less tailpipe emissions, which “can trigger health problems such as aggravated asthma, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia and bronchitis.” This is especially important for the millions of people who live near freeways and heavily congested roads. 

Congestion can also be financially costly for American households; the INRIZ Global Traffic Scorecard reports that traffic congestion cost the United States $81 billion in 2022. Those costs include vehicle maintenance, fuel cost, and “lost time,” all of which can be reduced with reliable and accessible public and active transportation. Additionally, the American Public Transportation Association reports that every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns, measured by savings in time traveled, reduction in traffic congestion, and business productivity. Thus, by investing in public transportation, communities can see improvements in air quality, economy, and health.

Public transportation is primarily managed at the local and state level; currently, over  6000 local and state transportation agencies provide and oversee public transportation in their regions. Public transportation is funded through federal, state, and local sources, and transit agencies receive funding from “passenger fares and other operating receipts.” The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) distributes funding for transit through grants and loans and accounts for 15% of total income for transit agencies, including 31% of capital investments in transit infrastructure. Local and state entities often lack sufficient resources to improve public transportation systems because of the uncertainty of ridership and funding streams.

Public-private partnerships can help alleviate some of these resource constraints because contracts can allow the private partner to operate public transportation systems. Regional and national collaboration across multiple agencies from the federal to the municipal level can also help alleviate resource barriers to public transit development. Local and state agencies do not have to work alone to improve public and active transportation systems. 

The following recommendations provide a pathway for transportation agencies at all levels of government to increase public and active transportation, resulting in social, economic, and environmental benefits for the communities they serve. 

Plan of Action

Recommendation 1. The FTA should require grant applicants for programs such as the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) to define how they will work collaboratively with multiple federal agencies and conduct community engagement. 

Per the National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, FTA staff should prioritize funding for grant applicants who successfully demonstrate partnerships and collaboration. This can be demonstrated, for example, with letters of support from community members and organizations for transit infrastructure projects. Collaboration can also be demonstrated by having applicants report clear goals, roles, and responsibilities for each agency involved in proposed projects. The FTA should: 

  1. Develop a rubric for evaluating partnerships’ efficiency and alignment with national transit decarbonization goals. 
  2. Create a tiered metrics system within the rubric that prioritizes grants for projects based on collaboration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the transit sector.
  3. Add a category to their Guidance Center on federal-state-local partnerships to provide insight on how they view successful collaboration. 

Recommendation 2. The DOT and HUD should collaborate on a prize competition to design active and/or public transportation projects to reduce traffic congestion. 

Housing and transportation costs are related and influence one another, which is why HUD is a natural partner. Funding can be sourced from the Highway Trust Fund, which the DOT has the authority to allocate up to “1% of the funds for research and development to carry out . . . prize competition program[s].”

This challenge should call on local agency partners to provide a design challenge or opportunity that impedes their ability to adopt transit-oriented infrastructure that could reduce traffic congestion. Three design challenges should be selected and publicly posted on the website so that any individual or organization can participate. 

The goal of the prize competition is to identify challenges, collaborate, and share resources across agencies and communities to design transportation solutions. The competition would connect the DOT with local and regional planning and transportation agencies to solicit solutions from the public, whether from individuals, teams of individuals, or organizations. The DOT and HUD should work collaboratively to design the selection criteria for the challenge and select the winners. Each challenge winner would be provided with a financial prize of $250,000, and their idea would be housed on the DOT website as a case study that can be used for future planning decisions. The local agencies that provide the three design challenges would be welcome to implement the winning solutions.

Recommendation 3. Federal, state, and local government should increase opportunities for public-private partnerships (P3s). 

The financial investment required to develop active and public transportation infrastructure is a hurdle for many agencies. To address this issue, we make the following recommendations: 


The road to decarbonizing the transportation sector requires public and active transportation. Federal agencies can allocate funding for public and active transit more effectively through the recommendations above. It’s time for the government to recognize public and active transportation as the key to equitable decarbonization of the transportation sector throughout the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are examples of transit public-private partnerships (P3s)?

Most P3s in the United States are for highways, bridges, and roads, but there have been a few successful public transit P3s. In 2018 the City of Los Angeles joined LAX and LAX Integrated Express Solutions in a $4.9 billion P3 to develop a train system within the airport. This project aims to launch in 2024 to “enhance the traveler experience” and will “result in 117,000 fewer vehicle miles traveled per day” to the airport. This project is a prime example of how P3s can help reduce traffic congestion and enable and encourage the use of public transportation.

How can P3s be further supported through federal policy beyond the recommendations in this memo?

In 2021, the Congressional Research Service released a report about public-private partnerships (3Ps) that highlights the role the federal government can play by making it easier for agencies to participate in P3s.

What are examples of existing green banks and infrastructure banks?

The state of Michigan has a long history with its Michigan Saves program, the nation’s first nonprofit green bank, which provides funding for projects like rooftop solar or energy efficiency programs.

In California the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority works “collaboratively with public and private partners to provide innovative and effective financing solutions” for renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and advanced transportation and manufacturing technologies.

The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank provides funding to municipalities, businesses, and homeowners for projects “including water and wastewater, roads and bridges, energy efficiency and renewable energy, and brownfield remediation.”

Applying ARPA-I: A Proven Model for Transportation Infrastructure

Executive Summary

In November 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which included $550 billion in new funding for dozens of new programs across the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). Alongside historic investments in America’s roads and bridges, the bill created the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I). Building on successful models like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Research Program-Energy (ARPA-E), ARPA-I’s mission is to bring the nation’s most innovative technology solutions to bear on our most significant transportation infrastructure challenges.

ARPA-I must navigate America’s uniquely complex infrastructure landscape, characterized by limited federal research and development funding compared to other sectors, public sector ownership and stewardship, and highly fragmented and often overlapping ownership structures that include cities, counties, states, federal agencies, the private sector, and quasi-public agencies. Moreover, the new agency needs to integrate the strong culture, structures, and rigorous ideation process that ARPAs across government have honed since the 1950s. This report is a primer on how ARPA-I, and its stakeholders, can leverage this unique opportunity to drive real, sustainable, and lasting change in America’s transportation infrastructure.

How to Use This Report

This report highlights the opportunity ARPA-I presents; orients those unfamiliar with the transportation infrastructure sector to the unique challenges it faces; provides a foundational understanding of the ARPA model and its early-stage program design; and empowers experts and stakeholders to get involved in program ideation. However, individual sections can be used as standalone tools depending on the reader’s prior knowledge of and intended involvement with ARPA-I.

An Opportunity for Transportation Infrastructure Innovation

In November 2021, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) authorizing the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I), among other new programs. ARPA-I’s mission is to advance U.S. transportation infrastructure by developing innovative science and technology solutions that:

ARPA-I will achieve this goal by supporting research projects that:

ARPA-I is the newest addition to a long line of successful ARPAs that continue to deliver breakthrough innovations across the defense, intelligence, energy, and health sectors. The U.S. Department of Defense established the pioneering Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1958 in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite to develop and demonstrate high-risk, high-reward technologies and capabilities to ensure U.S. military technological superiority and confront national security challenges. Throughout the years, DARPA programs have been responsible for significant technological advances with implications beyond defense and national security, such as the early stages of the internet, the creation of the global positioning system (GPS), and the development of mRNA vaccines critical to combating COVID-19. 

In light of the many successful advancements seeded through DARPA programs, the government replicated the ARPA model for other critical sectors, resulting in the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy within the Department of Energy, and, most recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H) within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now, there is the opportunity to bring that same spirit of untethered innovation to solve the most pressing transportation infrastructure challenges of our time. The United States has long faced a variety of transportation infrastructure-related challenges, due in part to low levels of federal research and development (R&D) spending in this area; the fragmentation of roles across federal, state, and local government; risk-averse procurement practices; and sluggish commercial markets. These challenges include:

The Fiscal Year 2023 Omnibus Appropriations Bill awarded ARPA-I its initial appropriation in early 2023. Yet even before that, the Biden-Harris Administration saw the potential for ARPA-I-driven innovations to help meet its goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, as articulated in its Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative. In particular, the Administration identified smart mobility, clean and efficient transportation systems, next-generation infrastructure construction, advanced electricity infrastructure, and clean fuel infrastructure as “net-zero game changers” that ARPA-I could play an outsize role in helping develop.

For ARPA-I programs to reach their full potential, agency stakeholders and partners need to understand not only how to effectively apply the ARPA model but how the unique circumstances and challenges within transportation infrastructure need to be considered in program design.

Unique Challenges of the Transportation Infrastructure Landscape

Using ARPA-I to advance transportation infrastructure breakthroughs requires an awareness of the most persistent challenges to prioritize and the unique set of circumstances within the sector that can hinder progress if ignored. Below are summaries of key challenges and considerations for ARPA-I to account for, followed by a deeper analysis of each challenge.

Lower Federal R&D Spending in Transportation Infrastructure 

Federal R&D expenditures in transportation infrastructure lag behind those in other sectors. This gap is particularly acute because, unlike for some other sectors, federal transportation R&D expenditures often fund studies and systems used to make regulatory decisions rather than technological innovation. The table below compares actual federal R&D spending and sector expenditures for 2019 across defense, healthcare, energy, and transportation as a percentage of each sector’s GDP. The federal government spends orders of magnitude less on transportation than other sectors: energy R&D spending as a percentage of sector GDP is nearly 15 times higher than transportation, while health is 13 times higher and defense is nearly 38 times higher.

Agency ^1Actual federal R&D spending, 2019Value added by industry and % of U.S. GDP, 20192019 federal R&D spending as % of sector GDP
Defense$54.69 billion$732 billion (3.4%)7.5%
Health and Human Services$38.51 billion$1,452 billion (6.8%) ^22.7%
Energy$18.27 billion$607 billion (2.8%) ^33.0%
Transportation$1.10 billion$610 billion (2.9%) ^40.2%
Expand Footnotes

1. The comparison of federal R&D spending and sector expenditures for 2019 is similar to those for the years 2020 and 2021.

2. Excludes GDP value-adds relating to Social Assistance

3. Includes GDP value-adds relating to oil and gas extraction, utilities, and petroleum and coal products

4. Excludes GDP value adds relating to Warehousing

Public Sector Dominance Limits Innovation Investment 

Since 1990, total investment in U.S. R&D has increased by roughly 9 times. When looking at the source of R&D investment over the same period, the private and public sectors invested approximately the same amount of R&D funding in 1982, but today the rate of R&D investment is nearly 4 times greater for the private industry than the government. 

While there are problems with the bulk of R&D coming from the private sector, such as innovations to promote long-term public goods being overlooked because of more lucrative market incentives, industries that receive considerable private R&D funding still see significant innovation breakthroughs. For example, the medical industry saw $161.8 billion in private R&D funding in 2020 compared to only $61.5 billion from federal funding. More than 75% of this private industry R&D occurred within the biopharmaceutical sector where corporations have profit incentives to be at the cutting edge of advancements in medicine.

The transportation sector has one robust domain for private R&D investment: vehicle and aircraft equipment manufacturing. In 2018, total private R&D was $52.6 billion. Private sector transportation R&D focuses on individual customers and end users, creating better vehicles, products, and efficiencies. The vast majority of that private sector R&D does not go toward infrastructure because the benefits are largely public rather than private. Put another way, the United States invests more than 50 times the amount of R&D into vehicles than the infrastructure systems upon which those vehicles operate. 

Market Fragmentation across Levels of Government

Despite opportunities within the public-dominated transportation infrastructure system, market fragmentation is a persistent obstacle to rapid progress. Each level of government has different actors with different objectives and responsibilities. For instance, at the federal level, USDOT provides national-level guidance, policy, and funding for transportation across aviation, highway, rail, transit, ports, and maritime modes. Meanwhile, the states set goals, develop transportation plans and projects, and manage transportation networks like the interstate highway system. Metropolitan planning organizations take on some of the planning functions at the regional level, and local governments often maintain much of their infrastructure. There are also local individual agencies that operate facilities like airports, ports, or tollways organized at the state, regional, or local level. Programs that can use partnerships to cut across this tapestry of systems are essential to driving impact at scale. 

Local agencies have limited access and capabilities to develop cross-sector technologies. They have access to limited pools of USDOT funding to pilot technologies and thus generally rely on commercially available technologies to increase the likelihood of pilot success. One shortcoming of this current process is that both USDOT and infrastructure owner-operators (IOOs) play a more passive role in developing innovative technologies, instead depending on merely deploying market-ready technologies. 

Multiple Modes, Customers, and Jurisdictions Create Difficulties in Efficiently Allocating R&D Resources

The transportation infrastructure sector is a multimodal environment split across many modes, including aviation, maritime, pipelines, railroads, roadways (which includes biking and walking), and transit. Each mode includes various customers and stakeholders to be considered. In addition, in the fragmented market landscape federal, state, and local departments of transportation have different—and sometimes competing—priorities and mandates. This dynamic creates difficulties in allocating R&D resources and considering access to innovation across these different modes.

Customer identification is not “one size fits all” across existing ARPAs. For example, DARPA has a laser focus on delivering efficient innovations for one customer: the Department of Defense. For ARPA-E, it is less clear; their customers range from utility companies to homeowners looking to benefit from lower energy costs. ARPA-I would occupy a space in between these two cases, understanding that its end users are IOOs—entities responsible for deploying infrastructure in many cases at the local or regional level. 

However, even with this more direct understanding of its customers, a shortcoming of a system focused on multiple modes is that transportation infrastructure is very broad, occupying everything from self-healing concrete to intersection safety to the deployment of electrified mobility and more. Further complicating matters is the rapid evolution of technologies and expectations across all modes, along with the rollout of entirely new modes of transportation. These developments raise questions about where new technologies and capabilities fit in existing modal frameworks, what actors in the transportation infrastructure market should lead their development, and who the ultimate “customers” or end users of innovation are.

Having a matrixed understanding of the rapid technological evolution across transportation modes and their potential customers is critical to investing in and building infrastructure for the future, given that transportation infrastructure investments not only alter a region’s movement of people and goods but also fundamentally impact its development. ARPA-I is poised to shape learnings across and in partnership with USDOT’s modes and various offices to ensure the development and refinement of underlying technologies and approaches that serve the needs of the entire transportation system and users across all modes.

Core Tenets of ARPA Success

Success using the ARPA model comes from demonstrating new innovative capabilities, building a community of people (an “ecosystem”) to carry the progress forward, and having the support of key decision-makers. Yet the ARPA model can only be successful if its program directors (PDs), fellows, stakeholders, and other partners understand the unique structure and inherent flexibility required when working to create a culture conducive to spurring breakthrough innovations. From a structural and cultural standpoint, the ARPA model is unlike any other agency model within the federal government, including all existing R&D agencies. Partners and other stakeholders should embrace the unique characteristics of an ARPA.

Cultural Components

ARPAs should take risks. 

An ARPA portfolio may be the closest thing to a venture capital portfolio in the federal government. They have a mandate to take big swings so should not be limited to projects that seem like safe bets. ARPAs will take on many projects throughout their existence, so they should balance quick wins with longer-term bets while embracing failure as a natural part of the process.

ARPAs should constantly evaluate and pivot when necessary.

An ARPA needs to be ruthless in its decision-making process because it has the ability to maneuver and shift without the restriction of initial plans or roadmaps. For example, projects around more nascent technology may require more patience, but if assessments indicate they are not achieving intended outcomes or milestones, PDs should not be afraid to terminate those projects and focus on other new ideas.

ARPAs should stay above the political fray. 

ARPAs can consider new and nontraditional ways to fund innovation, and thus should not be caught up in trends within their broader agency. As different administrations onboard, new offices get built and partisan priorities may shift, but ARPAs should limit external influence on their day-to-day operations.

ARPA team members should embrace an entrepreneurial mindset. 

PDs, partners, and other team members need to embrace the creative freedom required for success and operate much like entrepreneurs for their programs. Valued traits include a propensity toward action, flexibility, visionary leadership, self-motivation, and tenacity.

ARPA team members must move quickly and nimbly.

Trying to plan out the agency’s path for the next two years, five years, 10 years, or beyond is a futile effort and can be detrimental to progress. ARPAs require ultimate flexibility from day to day and year to year. Compared to other federal initiatives, ARPAs are far less bureaucratic by design, and forcing unnecessary planning and bureaucracy on the agency will slow progress.

Collegiality must be woven into the agency’s fabric.

With the rapidly shifting and entrepreneurial nature of ARPA work, the federal staff, contractors, and other agency partners need to rely on one another for support and assistance to seize opportunities and continue progressing as programs mature and shift. 

Outcomes matter more than following a process.

ARPA PDs must be free to explore potential program and project ideas without any predetermination. The agency should support them in pursuing big and unconventional ideas unrestricted by a particular process. While there is a process to turn their most unconventional and groundbreaking ideas into funded and functional projects, transformational ideas are more important than the process itself during idea generation.

ARPA team members welcome feedback.

Things move quickly in an ARPA, and decisions must match that pace, so individuals such as fellows and PDs must work together to offer as much feedback as possible. Constructive pushback helps avoid blind alleys and thus makes programs stronger.

Structural Components

The ARPA Director sets the vision.

The Director’s vision helps attract the right talent and appropriate levels of ambition and focus areas while garnering support from key decision-makers and luminaries. This vision will dictate the types and qualities of PDs an ARPA will attract to execute within that vision.

PDs can make or break an ARPA and set the technical direction.

Because the power of the agency lies within its people, ARPAs are typically flat organizations. An ARPA should seek to hire the best and most visionary thinkers and builders as PDs, enable them to determine and design good programs, and execute with limited hierarchical disruption. During this process, PDs should engage with decision-makers in the early stages of the program design to understand the needs and realities of implementers.

Contracting helps achieve goals.

The ARPA model allows PDs to connect with universities, companies, nonprofits, organizations, and other areas of government to contract necessary R&D. This allows the program to build relationships with individuals without needing to hire or provide facilities or research laboratories. 

Interactions improve outcomes. 

From past versions of ARPA that attempted remote and hybrid environments, it became evident that having organic collisions across an ARPA’s various roles and programs is important to achieving better outcomes. For example, ongoing in-person interactions between and among PDs and technical advisors are critical to idea generation and technical project and program management. 

Staff transitions must be well facilitated to retain institutional knowledge. 

One of ARPA’s most unique structural characteristics is its frequent turnover. PDs and fellows are term-limited, and ARPAs are designed to turn over those key positions every few years as markets and industries evolve, so having thoughtful transition processes in place is vital, including considering the role of systems engineering and technical assistance (SETA) contractors in filling knowledge gaps, cultivating an active alumni network, and staggered hiring cycles so that large numbers of PDs and fellows are not all exiting their service at once.

Scaling should be built into the structure.

It cannot be assumed that if a project is successful, the private sector will pick that technology up and help it scale. Instead, an ARPA should create its own bridge to scaling in the form of programs dedicated to funding projects proven in a test environment to scale their technology for real-world application. 

Technology-to-market advisors play a pivotal role.

Similarly to the dedicated funding for scaling described above, technology-to-market advisors are responsible for thinking about how projects make it to the real world. They should work hand in hand with PDs even in the early stages of program development to provide perspectives on how projects might commercialize and become market-ready. Without this focus, technologies run the risk of dying on the vine—succeeding technically, but failing commercially. 

A Primer on ARPA Ideation

Tackling grand challenges in transportation infrastructure through ARPA-I requires understanding what is unique about its program design. This process begins with considering the problem worth solving, the opportunity that makes it a ripe problem to solve, a high-level idea of an ARPA program’s fit in solving it, and a visualization of the future once this problem has been solved. This process of early-stage program ideation requires a shift in one’s thinking to find ideas for innovative programs that fit the ARPA model in terms of appropriate ambition level and suitability for ARPA structure and objectives. It is also an inherently iterative process, so while creating a “wireframe” outlining the problem, opportunity, program objectives, and future vision may seem straightforward, it can take months of refining. 

Common Challenges

No clear diagnosis of the problem

Many challenges facing our transportation infrastructure system are not defined by a single problem; rather, they are a conglomeration of issues that simultaneously need addressing. An effective program will not only isolate a single problem to tackle, but it will approach it at a level where something can be done to solve it through root cause analysis.

Thinking small and narrow

On the other hand, problems being considered for ARPA programs can be isolated down to the point that solving them will not drive transformational change. In this situation, narrow problems would not cater to a series of progressive and complementary projects that would fit an ARPA.

Incorrect framing of opportunities:

When doing early-stage program design, opportunities are sometimes framed as “an opportunity to tackle a problem.” Rather, an opportunity should reflect a promising method, technology, or approach already in existence but which would benefit from funding and resources through an advanced research agency program.

Approaching solutions solely from a regulatory or policy angle

While regulations and policy changes are a necessary and important component of tackling challenges in transportation infrastructure, approaching issues through this lens is not the mandate of an ARPA. ARPAs focus on supporting breakthrough innovations in developing new methods, technologies, capabilities, and approaches. Additionally, regulatory approaches to problem-solving can often be subject to lengthy policy processes.

No explicit ARPA role

An ARPA should pursue opportunities to solve problems where, without its intervention, breakthroughs may not happen within a reasonable timeframe. If the public or private sector already has significant interest in solving a problem, and they are well on their way to developing a transformational solution in a few years or less, then ARPA funding and support might provide a higher value-add elsewhere.

Lack of throughline

The problems identified for ARPA program consideration should be present as themes throughout the opportunities chosen to solve them as well as how programs are ultimately structured. Otherwise, a program may lack a targeted approach to solving a particular challenge.

Forgetting about end users

Human-centered design should be at the heart of how ARPA programs are scoped, especially when considering the scale at which designers need to think about how solving a problem will provide transformational change for everyday users.

Being solutions-oriented

Research programs should not be built with predetermined solutions in mind; they should be oriented around a specific problem to ensure that any solutions put forward are targeted and effective.

Not being realistic about direct outcomes of the program

Program objectives should not simply restate the opportunity, nor should they jump to where the world will be many years after the program has run its course. They should separate the tactical elements of a program and what impact they will ultimately drive. Designers should consider their program as one key step in a long arc of commercialization and adoption, with a firm sense of who needs to act and what needs to happen to make a program objective a reality.

Keeping these common mistakes in mind throughout the design process ensures that programs are properly scoped, appropriately ambitious, and in line with the agency’s goals. With these guideposts in mind, idea generators should begin their program design in the form of a wireframe.

Wireframe Development 

The first phase in ARPA program development is creating a program wireframe, which is an outline of a potential program that captures key components for consideration to assess the program’s fit and potential impact. The template below shows the components characteristic of a program wireframe.

Wireframe template

To create a fully fleshed-out wireframe, program directors work backward by first envisioning a future state that would be truly transformational for society and across sectors if it were to be realized. Then, they identify a clearly-articulated problem that needs solving and is hindering progress toward this transformational future state. During this process, PDs need to conduct extensive root cause analysis to consider whether the problem they’ve identified is exacerbated by policy, regulatory, or environmental complications—as opposed to those that technology can already solve. This will inform whether a problem is something that ARPA-I has the opportunity to impact fundamentally. 

Next, program directors identify a promising opportunity—such as a method, approach, or technology—that, if developed, scaled, and implemented, would solve the problem they articulated and help achieve their proposed future state. When considering a promising opportunity, PDs must assess whether it front-runs other potential technologies that would also need developing to support it and whether it is feasible to achieve concrete results within three to five years and with an average program budget. Additionally, it is useful to think about whether an opportunity considered for program development is part of a larger cohort of potential programs that lie within an ARPA-I focus area that could all be run in parallel.

Most importantly, before diving into how to solve the problem, PDs need to articulate what has prevented this opportunity from already being solved, scaled, and implemented, and what explicit role or need there is for a federal R&D agency to step in and lead the development of technologies, methods, or approaches to incentivize private sector deployment and scaling. For example, if the private sector is already incentivized to, and capable of, taking the lead on developing a particular technology and it will achieve market readiness within a few years, then there is less justification for an ARPA intervention in that particular case. On the other hand, the prescribed solution to the identified problem may be so nascent that what is needed is more early-stage foundational R&D, in which case an ARPA program would not be a good fit. This area should be reserved as the domain of more fundamental science-based federal R&D agencies and offices.

One example to illustrate this maturity fit is DARPA investment in mRNA. While the National Institutes of Health contributed significantly to initial basic research, DARPA recognized the technological gap in being able to quickly scale and manufacture therapeutics, prompting the agency to launch the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program to develop technologies to respond to infectious disease threats. Through ADEPT, in 2011 DARPA awarded a fledgling Moderna Therapeutics with $25 million to research and develop its messenger RNA therapeutics platform. Nine years later, Moderna became the second company after Pfizer-BioNTech to receive an Emergency Use Authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine.

Another example is DARPA’s role in developing the internet as we know it, which was not originally about realizing the unprecedented concept of a ubiquitous, global communications network. What began as researching technologies for interlinking packet networks led to the development of ARPANET, a pioneering network for sharing information among geographically separated computers. DARPA then contracted BBN Technologies to build the first routers before becoming operational in 1969. This research laid the foundation for the internet. The commercial sector has since adopted ARPANET’s groundbreaking results and used them to revolutionize communication and information sharing across the globe.

Wireframe Refinement and Iteration

To guide program directors through successful program development, George H. Heilmeier, who served as the director of DARPA from 1975 to 1977, used to require that all PDs answer the following questions, known as the Heilmeier Catechism, as part of their pitch for a new program. These questions should be used to refine the wireframe and envision what the program could look like. In particular, wireframe refinement should examine the first three questions before expanding to the remaining questions.

Alongside the Heilmeier Catechism, a series of assessments and lines of questioning should be completed to pressure test and iterate once the wireframe has been drafted. This refinement process is not one-size-fits-all but consistently grounded in research, discussions with experts, and constant questioning to ensure program fit. The objective is to thoroughly analyze whether the problem we are seeking to solve is the right one and whether the full space of opportunities around that problem is ripe for ARPA intervention.

One way to think about determining whether a wireframe could be a program is by asking, “Is this wireframe science or is this science fiction?” In other words, is the proposed technology solution at the right maturity level for an ARPA to make it a reality? There is a relatively broad range in the middle of the technological maturity spectrum that could be an ARPA program fit, but the extreme ends of that spectrum would not be a good fit, and thus those wireframes would need further iteration or rejection. On the far left end of the spectrum would be basic research that only yields published papers or possibly a prototype. On the other extreme would be a technology that is already developed to the point that only full-scale implementation is needed. Everything that falls between could be suitable for an ARPA program topic area.  

Once a high-impact program has been designed, the next step is to rigorously pressure test and develop a program until it resembles an executable ARPA program.

Applying ARPA Frameworks to Transportation Infrastructure Challenges

By using this framework, any problem or opportunity within transportation infrastructure can be evaluated for its fit as an ARPA-level idea. Expert and stakeholder idea generation is essential to creating an effective portfolio of ARPA-I programs, so idea generators must be armed with this framework and a defined set of focus areas to develop promising program wireframes. An initial set of focus areas for ARPA-I includes safety, climate and resilience, and digitalization, with equity and accessibility as underlying considerations within each focus area. 

There are hundreds of potential topic areas that ARPA-I could tackle; the two wireframes below represent examples of early-stage program ideas that would benefit from further pressure testing through the program design iteration cycle.

Note: The following wireframes are samples intended to illustrate ARPA ideation and the wireframing process, and do not represent potential research programs or topics under consideration by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Next-Generation Resilient Infrastructure Management

A Digital Inventory of Physical Infrastructure and Its Uses

Wireframe Development Next Steps

After initial wireframe development, further exploration is needed to pressure test an idea and ensure that it can be developed into a viable program to achieve “moonshot” ambitions. Wireframe authors should consider the following factors when iterating:

Wireframes are intended to be a summary communicative of a larger plan to follow. After further iteration and exploration of the factors outlined above, what was first just a raw program wireframe should develop into more detailed documents. These should include an incisive diagnosis of the problem and evidence and citations validating opportunities to solve it. Together, these components should lead to a plausible program objective as an outcome.


The newly authorized and appropriated ARPA-I presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to apply a model that has been proven successful in developing breakthrough innovations in other sectors to the persistent challenges facing transportation infrastructure.

Individuals and organizations that would work within the ARPA-I network need to have a clear understanding of the unique circumstances, challenges, and opportunities of this sector, as well as how to apply this context and the unique ARPA program ideation model to build high-impact future innovation programs. This community’s engagement is critical to ARPA-I’s success, and the FAS is looking for big thinkers who are willing to take on this challenge by developing bold, innovative ideas.

To sign up for future updates on events, convenings, and other opportunities for you to work in support of ARPA-I programs and partners, click here.

To submit an advanced research program idea, click here.

Advanced Research Priorities in Transportation

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has identified several domains in the transportation and infrastructure space that retain a plethora of unsolved opportunities ripe for breakthrough innovation.

Transportation is not traditionally viewed as a research- and development-led field, with less than 0.7% of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual budget dedicated to R&D activities. The majority of DOT’s R&D funds are disbursed by modal operating administrators mandated to execute on distinct funding priorities rather than a collective, integrated vision of transforming the nation’s infrastructure across 50 states and localities. 

Historically, a small percentage of these R&D funds have supported and developed promising, cross-cutting initiatives, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research programs deploying artificial intelligence to better understand driver behavior and applying novel data integration techniques to enhance freight logistics. Yet, the scope of these programs has not been designed to scale discoveries into broad deployment, limiting the impact of innovation and technology in transforming transportation and infrastructure in the United States. 

As a result, transportation and infrastructure retain a plethora of unaddressed opportunities – from reducing the 40,000 annual vehicle-related fatalities, to improving freight logistics through ports, highways, and rail, to achieving a net zero carbon transportation system, to building infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change and severe weather. The reasons for these persistent challenges are numerous: low levels of federal R&D spending, fragmentation across state and local government, risk-averse procurement practices, sluggish commercial markets, and more. When innovations do emerge in this field, they suffer from two valleys of death: one to bring new ideas out of the lab into commercialization, and the second to bring successful deployments of those technologies to scale.

The United States needs a concerted national innovation pipeline designed to fill this gap, exploring early-stage, moonshot research while nurturing  breakthroughs from concept to deployment. An Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure would deliver on this mission. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) will operate nimbly and with rigorous program management and deep technical expertise to tackle the biggest infrastructure  challenges and overcome entrenched market failures. Solutions would cut across traditional transportation modes (e.g. highways, rail, aviation, maritime, pipelines etc) and would include innovative new infrastructure technologies, materials, systems, capabilities, or processes. 

The list of domain areas below reflects priorities for DOT as well as areas where there is significant opportunity for breakthrough innovation:

Key Domain Areas

Metropolitan Safety

Despite progress made since 1975, dramatic reductions in roadway fatalities remain a core, persistent challenge. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, with an estimated 31,785 people killed in the first nine months of 2022. The magnitude of this challenge is articulated in DOT’s most recent National Roadway Safety Strategy, a document that begins with a statement from Secretary Buttigieg: “The status quo is unacceptable, and it is preventable… Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.” 

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: urban roadway safety; advanced vehicle driver assistance systems; driver alcohol detection systems; vehicle design; street design; speeding and speed limits; and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications and networking technology.

Key Questions for Consideration:

Rural Safety

Rural communities possess their own unique safety challenges stemming from road design and signage, speed limits, and other factors; and data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that “while only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 43% of all roadway fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is almost 2 times higher than on urban roads.”

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: improved information collection and management systems; design and evaluation tools for two-lane highways and other geometric design decisions; augmented visibility; mitigating or anti-rollover crash solutions; and enhanced emergency response. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Resilient & Climate Prepared Infrastructure

Modern roads, bridges, and transportation are designed to withstand storms that, at the time of their construction, had a probability of occurring once in 100 years; today, climate change has made extreme weather events commonplace. In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered 22 high-impact weather disasters that each cost over $1 billion in damages. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and New Jersey subways with a 14-foot storm surge, millions were left without their primary mode of transportation for a week. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are likely to impact both marine and air transportation, as 13 of the 47 largest U.S. airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of the current sea level. Additionally, the persistent presence of wildfires–which are burning an average of 7 million acres annually across the United States, more than double the average in the 1990s–dramatically reshapes the transportation network in acute ways and causes downstream damage through landslides, flooding, and other natural events.

These trends are likely to continue as climate change exacerbates the intensity and scope of these events. The Department of Transportation is well-positioned to introduce systems-level improvements to the resilience of our nation’s infrastructure.

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: High-performance long-life, advanced materials that increase resiliency and reduce maintenance and reconstruction needs, especially materials for roads, rail, and ports; nature-based protective strategies such as constructed marshes; novel designs for multi-modal hubs or other logistics/supply chain redundancy; efficient and dynamic mechanisms to optimize the relocation of transportation assets; intensive maintenance, preservation, prediction, and degradation analysis methods; and intelligent disaster-resilient infrastructure countermeasures. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

Digital Infrastructure

Advancing the systems, tools, and capabilities for digital infrastructure to reflect and manage the built environment has the power to enable improved asset maintenance and operations across all levels of government, at scale. Advancements in this field would make using our infrastructure more seamless for transit, freight, pedestrians, and more. Increased data collection from or about vehicle movements, for example, enables user-friendly and demand-responsive traffic management, dynamic curb management for personal vehicles, transit and delivery transportation modes, congestion pricing, safety mapping and targeted interventions, and rail and port logistics. When data is accessible by local departments of transportation and municipalities, it can be harnessed to improve transportation operations and public safety through crash detection as well as to develop Smart Cities and Communities that utilize user-focused mobility services; connected and automated vehicles; electrification across transportation modes, and intelligent, sensor-based infrastructure to measure and manage age-old problems like potholes, air pollution, traffic, parking, and safety.

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: traffic management; curb management; congestion pricing; accessibility; mapping for safety; rail management; port logistics; and transportation system/electric grid coordination.

Key Questions for Consideration:

Expediting and Upgrading Construction Methods

Infrastructure projects are fraught with expensive delays and overrun budgets. In the United States, fewer than 1 in 3 contractors report finishing projects on time and within budgets, with 70% citing coordination at the site of construction as the primary reason. In the words of one industry executive, “all [of the nation’s] major projects have cost and schedule issues … the truth is these are very high-risk and difficult projects. Conditions change. It is impossible to estimate it accurately.” But can process improvements and other innovations make construction cheaper, better, faster, and easier?

Example topical areas include but are not limited to: augmented forecasting and modeling techniques; prefabricated or advanced robotic fabrication, modular, and adaptable structures and systems such as bridge sub- and superstructures; real-time quality control and assurance technologies for accelerated construction, materials innovation; new pavement technologies; bioretention; tunneling; underground infrastructure mapping; novel methods for bridge engineering, building information modeling (BIM), coastal, wind, and offshore engineering; stormwater systems; and computational methods in structural engineering, structural sensing, control, and asset management. 

Key Questions for Consideration:


Our national economic strength and quality of life depend on the safe and efficient movement of goods throughout our nation’s borders and beyond. Logistic systems—the interconnected webs of businesses, workers, infrastructure processes, and practices that underlie the sorting, transportation, and distribution of goods must operate with efficiency and resilience. . When logistics systems are disrupted by events such as public health crises, extreme weather, workforce challenges, or cyberattacks, goods are delayed, costs increase, and Americans’ daily lives are affected. The Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14017 calling for a review of the transportation and logistics industrial base. DOT released the Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment in February 2022, spotlighting a range of actions that DOT envisions to support a resilient 21st-century freight and logistics supply chain for America.

Topical areas include but are not limited to: freight infrastructure, including ports, roads, airports, and railroads; data and research; rules and regulations; coordination across public and private sectors; and supply chain electrification and intersections with resilient infrastructure. 

Key Questions for Consideration:

ARPA-I: Get Involved

FAS is seeking to engage experts from across the transportation infrastructure community who are the right kind of big thinkers to get involved in developing solutions to transportation moonshots.

Widespread engagement of this diverse network is critical to ensuring ARPA-I’s success. So whether you are an academic researcher, startup CEO, safe streets activist, or have experience with federal R&D programs–we are looking for your insights and expertise.

To be considered for opportunities to support future efforts around transportation infrastructure moonshots, please fill out this form and a member of our team will be in touch as opportunities to get involved arise.

ARPA-I: Share an Idea

Do you have ideas that could inform an ambitious Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) portfolio at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)? We’re looking for your boldest infrastructure moonshots.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is seeking to engage experts across the transportation policy space who can leverage their expertise to help FAS identify a set of grand solutions around transportation infrastructure challenges and advanced research priorities for DOT to consider. Priority topic areas include but are not limited to metropolitan safety, rural safety, resilient and climate-prepared infrastructure, digital infrastructure, expediting “mega projects,” and logistics. You can read more about these topic areas in depth here.

What We’re Looking For and How to Submit

We are looking for experts to develop and submit an initial program design in the form of a wireframe that could inform a future advanced research portfolio at DOT. A wireframe is an outline of a potential program that captures key components that need to be considered in order to assess the program’s fit and potential impact. The template below reflects the components of a program wireframe. Wireframes can be submitted by email here. Please include all four sections of the wireframe shown in the template below in the body of your email submission.

Program Design Wireframe

When writing your wireframe, we ask you aim to avoid the following common challenges to ensure that ideas are properly scoped, appropriately ambitious, and are in line with the agency’s goals:

For a more detailed primer on ARPA program ideation, please read our publication, “Applying ARPA-I: A Proven Model for Transportation.”

Sample Idea

Informed by input from non-federal subject matter experts


Urban and suburban environments are complex, with competing uses for public space across modes and functions – drivers, transit users, cyclists, pedestrians, diners, etc.    Humans are prone to erratic, unpredictable, and distracted driving behavior, and when coupled with speed, vehicle size, and infrastructure design, such behaviors can cause injury, death, property damage, and transportation system disruption. A decade-old study from NHTSA – at a time when roadway fatalities were approximately 25% lower than current levels – found that the total value of societal harm from crashes in 2010 was $836 billion. 


What if the relationships between the driver, the environment (including pedestrians), and the vehicle could be personalized?

Program Objective 


Digital transportation networks can communicate personalized information with drivers through their cars in a uniform medium and with a goal of augmenting safety in each of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

USDOT Workshop: Transportation, Mobility, and the Future of Infrastructure

On December 8th, 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation hosted a workshop, “Transportation, Mobility, and the Future of Infrastructure,” in collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists. 

The goal for this event was to bring together innovative thinkers from various sectors of infrastructure and transportation to scope ideas where research, technology, and innovation could drive meaningful change for the Department of Transportation’s strategic priorities.

To provide framing for the day, participants heard from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology Robert Hampshire, who both underscored the potential for a new agency – The Advanced Research Projects Agency – Infrastructure (ARPA-I) to accelerate transformative solutions for the transportation sector. Then, a panel featuring Kei Koizumi, Jennifer Gerbi, and Erwin Gianchandani focused on Federal Research and Development (R&D) explored federal advanced research models that drive innovation in complex sectors and explored how such approaches may accelerate solutions to key priorities in the transportation system.

Workshop participants listening to remarks from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Participants then participated in separate breakout sessions organized around: 1) safety; 2) digitalization; and 3) climate and resilience. During the breakouts sessions, participants were asked to build on pre-work they had completed before the Workshop by brainstorming future vision statements and using them as the foundation to come up with innovative federal R&D program designs. Participants then regrouped and ended the day by discussing the most promising ideas from their respective breakout sessions, and where their ideas could go next.

The Workshop inspired participants to dig deep to surface meaningful challenges and innovative solutions for USDOT to tackle, whether through ARPA-I or other federal R&D mechanisms, and represents an initial step of a broader process to identify topics and domains in which stakeholders can drive transformational progress for our infrastructure and transportation system. Such an effort will require continued engagement and buy-in from a diverse community of experts.

As such, FAS is seeking to engage experts from across the transportation infrastructure community who are willing to “think big” and creatively about solutions to transportation moonshots. If you’re interested in supporting future efforts around transportation infrastructure moonshots, please visit our “Get Involved” page; if you’re ready to submit an initial program design in the form of a wireframe that could inform a future advanced research portfolio at DOT, please visit our “Share an Idea” page.

Steering Innovation for Autonomous Vehicles Towards Societally Beneficial Outcomes


Vehicle automation, coupled with simultaneous mobility revolutions of vehicle electrification and ridesharing, is set to have major impacts on society—perhaps the biggest impacts of any development in transportation since the introduction of cars over 100 years ago. But whether those impacts will be positive or not is still unknown. For example, widespread deployment of AVs could slash U.S. energy consumption by as much as 40% due to improved driving efficiency; alternatively, it could double U.S. energy consumption due to increased availability of cheap transport options. Similar uncertainty surrounds the potential impacts of AVs on physical safety, transportation access for disabled communities, overall traffic efficiency, and long-term greenhouse-gas emissions. Guiding the evolution of AVs towards the future we want requires evaluating AVs using metrics that prioritize societally beneficial outcomes. The Biden-Harris administration should create an Evaluation Innovation Engine at the Department of Transportation (DOT) to propose, refine, and standardize public-interest metrics for AVs.

The Evaluation Innovation Engine (EIE) would do for AV metrics what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge did for AV development: ignite productive competition among companies to achieve state-of-the-art performance. The EIE should have two main tasks (1) convening stakeholders to discuss potential metrics and providing opportunities for public comment on how proposed metrics should be prioritized, and (2) administering annual funding rounds of ~$72 million each for private firms and other entities to create, test, and optimize algorithms for publicly beneficial AV outcomes. The EIE should be overseen by the Secretary of Transportation and staffed by representatives from pertinent DOT offices (Office of Civil Rights, Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, Office of Public Affairs) and administrations (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Federal Transit Administration (FTA)), as well as a broad coalition of civil-society advocates.

Integrating Automated Vehicles with 5G Networks to Realize the Future of Transportation


Widespread deployment of fully automated or “autonomous” vehicles (AVs) that can operate without human interaction would make travel easier, cheaper, and safer. Reaching this highest level of automation requires AVs to be connected to 5G networks, which in turn allows AVs to communicate with “smart”, 5G-connected roadway infrastructure. The federal government can support progress towards this goal through a three-part initiative. Part 1 would establish Transportation Infrastructure Pilot Zones to field-test the integration of AV technology with 5G networks in settings across the country. Part 2 would create a National Connected AV Research Consortium to pursue connected-vehicle research achieving massive scale. Part 3 would launch a targeted research initiative focused on ensuring safety in a connected AV era, and Part 4 would create a new U.S. Corps of Engineers and Computer Scientists for Technology to embed technically skilled experts into government. With primary support from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Defense (DOD), this initiative would also help develop a basic framework for achieving a 90% reduction in vehicle crashes nationwide, deliver new transportation services, and establish national standards for AV technology. Initiative outcomes would promote U.S. global leadership in AVs, create new jobs and economic opportunities, and prepare the U.S. workforce to integrate technology of the future into systems of the present.

Support Electrification at Regional Airports to Preserve Competitiveness & Improve Health Outcomes


The Biden-Harris Administration, Congress, and state legislatures should adopt measures to reduce the substantial health and environmental impact of America’s 5,000+ public airports while improving the competitiveness of American aviation. Aviation is our largest non-agricultural export industry, but we are losing our technological advantage to countries that have prioritized sustainable aviation technologies. Because our airports and aircraft use outdated technology, they disproportionately pollute the often-disadvantaged communities adjacent to them, causing health externalities while providing few benefits and job opportunities to local residents. Fixing this public health problem should start with the immediate phaseout of leaded aviation fuel, which is the largest source of lead emissions in the U.S. This should also be coupled with incentivizing advancements in sustainable aviation technology. The phaseout and innovation incentivization can be accomplished through regulatory agency mandates, new fees collected from combustion aircraft users, reprioritization of existing recurring federal funds for aviation, and allocation of additional funding—such as from the proposed national infrastructure plan—towards sustainable solutions. The focus of this funding should be comprehensive electrification of the entire aviation ecosystem, including airports, ground vehicles, support equipment, and aircraft. Electrification will remove the lead concern while also reducing other pollution and creating jobs. Funding for pollution mitigation and green job creation should be directed toward disadvantaged communities located near airports and U.S.-based small businesses developing green aviation technologies. These actions must be taken immediately, lest our public health continue to suffer, and lest we jeopardize the future of the U.S. aviation industry.

Challenge and Opportunity 

Small aircraft are the largest source of environmental lead pollution in the US. Blood lead levels are significantly elevated for children living within 0.6 mi (1,000m) of airports where leaded aviation fuel (avgas) is used. An estimated 16 million Americans are at risk of elevated blood lead levels because they live near a regional airport, where the majority of flight operations are undertaken by small piston engine aircraft burning leaded fuel. Lead is a neurotoxin for which there is no safe level of exposure, as determined by both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, the EPA has continued to permit over 2 grams of lead content per gallon of aviation gasoline, which is aerosolized into extremely dangerous microscopic particulate matter (PM) when burned in an aircraft piston engine. When inhaled, small PM is capable of directly entering the bloodstream. This lead exposure is especially dangerous for fetal development and for cognitive development in children. The science behind these effects is very well established because of decades of research into the effects of leaded automotive gasoline; this resulted in a complete ban of leaded gasoline in 1996, although aviation successfully lobbied for a special temporary exemption.

Monthly average child blood lead levels vs. sum of piston engine aircraft takeoffs and landings over time. This data was collected from over 1 million children living within 6.2 miles of 27 airports in Michigan with piston aircraft traffic. It is clear that blood lead levels rise and fall in concert with piston aircraft traffic.

Zahran et al., 2017.

Although most attention has been focused on about 30 large hub airports in the U.S., lead pollution occurs primarily at smaller regional airports due to their reliance on piston-engine aircraft. There are over 10,000 airstrips and over 5,000 public airports in the U.S., or a public airport within a 16-minute drive of the average American. The nearly 200,000 leaded-fuelburning aircraft operating from these airports are incapable of readily switching to unleaded fuel due to their outdated engine technology and the lack of availability of unleaded gasoline at most airports.

How widespread is this problem?

This is a map of regional airports where leaded avgas and other polluting fossil fuels are used. There are over 5,000 public airports in the US — or one within a 16-minute drive of the average American.

For both economic and technical reasons, a widespread, drop-in replacement for leaded aviation gasoline (avgas) has failed to emerge, despite the fact that leaded fuel was fully eliminated on our roads decades ago. Because of limited unleaded fuel supply, reduced power output, safety concerns, and pilot retraining needs, even engines theoretically capable of switching to unleaded fuel continue to use leaded fuel almost exclusively. However, simply switching to planes that use diesel or jet fuel is not the answer. Unlike cars, aircraft have no emissions control systems, and there is no existing way to install such systems. As a result, even aircraft that do not burn leaded fuel emit very high levels of PM and other forms of pollution detrimental to human health. For example, LAX alone produces nearly as much particulate pollution as all LA-area freeways combined, and LAX is just one of 39 airports in the local air district. It is critical to American public health that any policies to phase out leaded avgas concurrently foster adoption of reduced-emission and reduced-fuel-burn technologies (such as electric propulsion), rather than encourage switching to fuel-hungry and high-pollution unleaded gasoline engines, diesel engines, turboprops, and jet engines. 

This is also critical to American economic health: European and Asian companies are beating the U.S. at developing efficient unleaded-fuel engines and electric propulsion technology, winning market share in regions traditionally dominated by US-built light aircraft (e.g. where leaded fuel is unavailable or expensive). We need to invest in sustainable propulsion systems to maintain U.S. competitiveness, and lack of supportive policy action has hampered technological advancement. 

Zero funding, for example, has been allocated in the proposed American Jobs Plan to deal with dangerous aerosolized lead pollution from aviation, even though the plan dedicates $45B toward replacing lead pipes. Combating aviation pollution, however, offers a significant opportunity to pursue electrification, with a wide variety of shovel-ready airport project locations. The U.S. workforce can electrify airport infrastructure, ground vehicles, and aircraft domestically using existing and proposed federal funding as well as revenue from fees targeted at polluting aircraft. Shared charging infrastructure should be a special priority. Installing basic charging infrastructure at every one of the 5,000 public airports in the U.S. — focusing first on the 500 most heavily-used airports located closest to populated areas and in disadvantaged communities — is a highly achievable near-term goal at moderate expense. For instance, installing a 30-60 kW DC fast charger, which could charge small electric planes or ground vehicles, at the 500 highestpriority airports would cost less than $25M and could be completed in 2-3 years with sufficient federal backing.

Transitioning to biofuels or other so-called “sustainable” fuels can play a role, but should not be considered a substitute for fuel use reduction via electrification because their emissions can still be harmful. Both the biofuel supply chain and burning of biofuels, for example, emit a wide range of pollutants. Even green hydrogen, currently a tiny fraction of the world’s mostly fossil-fuel derived hydrogen supply, would still lead to emissions of water vapor. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas when emitted at high altitude, and in some proposed implementations (such as direct hydrogen turbine combustion) hydrogen aircraft could also lead to significant high altitude nitrogen oxide pollution.

Electrification also offers an opportunity to better integrate airports into both urban and rural transit networks, provide clean energy and charging services to local communities (e.g., charging buses overnight), and improve resilience to power outages by offering grid storage. Electrification infrastructure at airports could include, for example, solar panels and grid storage doubling as power backup systems at airports. This would serve not just airport power needs but also those of surrounding communities, especially in remote areas prone to outages. This power system resilience is especially critical in disaster situations, where airports often serve as hubs for emergency responders.

In the near term, electrifying aviation entails plugging planes into gate power instead of burning fuel, using electric power to taxi to the runway, and operating electric tugs and ground equipment. Electrifying aviation also means investing in R&D, scaleup, and adoption of electric trainer aircraft, hybrid electric short-range cargo and passenger planes, and eventually longerrange commercial planes. As batteries and electronics improve, larger and larger planes will become more and more electric over time. To facilitate these technological advances in electric aviation and maximize public benefit, federal funding should focus on promoting adoption of electrification on routes not currently serviced or readily serviceable by rail or other alternative rapid, sustainable forms of transportation.

Plan of Action 

Infrastructure Funding 

Reprioritize existing funding sources, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Program (VALE) program, to focus on sustainable infrastructure such as solar, storage, and chargers at both public airports and military airports. Supplement this funding by dedicating at least $10B of the proposed $25B of airport funding in the American Jobs Plan, or $20B of the proposed $56B Republican counter-offer, towards electrification across airports of all sizes. Initially prioritize: 

  1. The 500 most heavily-used airports located closest to populated areas and in disadvantaged communities,
  2. Regional airports that have far fewer logistical barriers to infrastructure projects than congested hubs, and
  3. Airports supporting routes not currently serviced or readily serviceable by rail.

R&D Funding 

Reprioritize existing federal research funding toward technologies aimed at reducing fuel burned by aircraft, such as significantly expanding current hybrid and electric aviation initiatives at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Department of Energy (DOE).1 Additional funding paid for by fees on polluting aircraft should be added to these existing pools of research dollars (see “Plan of Action” items 4-6). To remain competitive with accelerating civil and defense aviation technology development overseas, the government should direct a minimum of $2B in annual federal funding to electric aviation R&D. Funding should prioritize the development of US-designed and manufactured electric and hybrid electric aircraft technologies, including both retrofit and new-build planes, ground equipment, and ground vehicles. At least 50% of funds should be dedicated to small businesses.

The U.S. is currently the world leader in small aircraft production, but we are falling far behind Europe and Asia on electrifying fixed wing aircraft, funding development of new efficiency technologies, and implementing relevant policies. U.S. companies have instead focused primarily on low-capacity “flying cars” for carrying high-net-worth individuals short distances over traffic. The lack of funding and policy support for practical, high-impact innovation poses a significant threat to future U.S. competitiveness and jobs, especially in the export market.


The EPA should issue its final endangerment finding banning leaded fuels, and the Biden-Harris Administration should issue an executive order instructing the EPA and FAA to work together to eliminate lead pollution. This includes immediately implementing a 10-year phaseout mandate for the sale of leaded fuel, with use of leaded fuel banned after 2030 except for a limited number of historic aircraft. This phaseout timeline should be extended to 2040 in Alaska, due to the disproportionate impact on the greater than 80% of Alaskan communities reliant on small planes for year-round access. During the Obama Administration, an attempt was made to phase out leaded avgas, but it stalled largely because of the perceived impact on mobility in Alaska. It is critical to ensure that a phaseout plan recognizes Alaska’s needs and funds sustainable solutions suitable for an arctic operating environment.

It is not enough to simply ban lead, because this may incentivize switching to other highly polluting technologies like dirty unleaded gasoline engines, diesel engines, and far less fuelefficient turboprop or jet engines. Thus, it is critical that a leaded fuel ban be accompanied by the immediate implementation of a fuel efficiency mandate for aircraft that are based in or that regularly fly to the U.S. Inspired by the federal automotive Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards program, this efficiency mandate should utilize multiple aircraft size categories with targets based on maximum takeoff weight (e.g., <1,000 lb, 1,000-5,000 lb, 5,000- 19,000 lb, 19,000-75,000 lb, 75,000-250,000 lb, and 250,000 lb+ categories). Efficiency targets should take into consideration typical missions and technical difficulty in reducing fuel burn for various types of aircraft. For instance, <19,000 lb aircraft are readily able to use hybrid electric propulsion — and, in some cases, pure electric propulsion — with existing technology and regulations. The largest aircraft flying long distance routes, on the other hand, will initially need to focus on smaller steps such as more efficient flight patterns, plugging into gate power/HVAC, electric taxi (either onboard or via tug), etc. until future technologies are developed; therefore, larger aircraft should have less aggressive targets (similar to less aggressive CAFE standards for larger vehicles). Technologies piloted in smaller electric aircraft will eventually make their way to larger aircraft, initially as high-power subsystems. Thus, these technologies are key early targets for federal funding and mandates. The overall “CAFE” goal should be a 25% reduction in overall U.S. aviation fossil fuel burned per passenger by 2030, and a 50% reduction by 2040.


The following programs offer pathways for making electrification programs financially sustainable beyond the initial infusions of funding for infrastructure transformation and R&D.

Immediately implement a national $10 per flight hour use tax on all aircraft with 19 passenger seats or below. This should include an additional $2 per flight hour tax on leaded fuel burning aircraft and on any other aircraft burning more than 4 gallons of fuel per seat per flight hour. It is essential to avoid solely targeting leaded fuel piston aircraft, which would incentivize a switch to less fuel-efficient turboprop aircraft and business jets. 100% of tax revenues should be dedicated to the aviation industry and airports, and at least 50% of funds should go to small businesses. Tax revenues should be allocated toward: 

  1. The electrification of airports
  2. A “cash for clunkers” program to retire or retrofit polluting aircraft, with commercial and government operators receiving priority for funding. This funding should only be provided for US-manufactured or US-retrofit electrified aircraft. 
  3. Jobs training and career development for airport-adjacent communities. 

This would not be an undue burden on air travelers, because the owners and users of small aircraft are generally affluent. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association reports that the net worth of its average member is over $1.6 million. Aircraft operating in Alaska should be exempt from this tax until 2030. Revenue should exceed $260M/year based only on the base $10 fee, assuming pre-pandemic flight hour totals.

Immediately implement a $10 “Clean Skies Fee” per passenger for all international flights on planes with more than 19 passenger seats, excluding flights within North America, to be collected by air carriers from passengers at the time air transportation is purchased. The September 11 Security Fee offers a precedent for this type of fee.

An optional “Clean Skies Fund” contribution with suggested donations of $5, $10, $25, and $50 should also be offered at time of purchase for all flights on planes with more than 19 passenger seats—both domestic and international—to allow passengers an opportunity to further fund pollution-reducing technologies across the aviation ecosystem and to offset their personal environmental impact from flying. This fund is modeled after optional federal contributions such as the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

A portion of collected funds should be provided to airlines and travel booking services in order to implement and maintain this contribution mechanism, which must be prominently featured in the booking process. Carriers will remit the fees to federal programs promoting reduction in fuel use, airport electrification, and jobs training. At least 50% of funds should go to small businesses. Revenue should exceed $2.34B/year assuming pre-pandemic international flight passenger demand.

For planes with more than 19 passenger seats, implement a similar $0.25/mile per passenger fee on all domestic and North America region flights effective in 2030 to fund fuel burn reduction and airport electrification. At least 50% of funds should go to small businesses, and all funds should be dedicated to projects that directly benefit airports and aviation, as well as increasing accessibility to all Americans.


The actions above should be immediately implemented in order to preserve the millions of U.S. jobs in the aerospace industry. Aircraft are the largest non-agricultural U.S. export product and one of the largest domestic manufacturing industries. As of 2018, the aerospace industry was directly responsible for over 2.4 million primarily high-paying U.S. jobs, many of which are union jobs or in STEM fields. Airlines directly employ nearly 500,000 Americans, and a wide variety of indirect jobs in travel agencies, airports, construction, and related industries are reliant on aviation. Although we support expanded low-emissions rail transportation, continued modal shift away from aviation towards automobiles would be devastating to the airline industry and increase overall emissions.

The U.S. currently leads the world in aviation manufacturing, but we are falling behind in electric aviation technology, including both airport-based ground vehicles and aircraft. We are headed towards an inflection point that will determine the future of the U.S. aviation industry. Either U.S. policy will promote adoption of more efficient technologies for aircraft as well as airport vehicles and equipment, thereby maintaining U.S. world leadership in aviation, or the U.S. will lose this market to other nations in Asia and Europe. The only way to preserve aviation jobs is by investing in efficiency and by enacting smart policies that promote private investment in and adoption of cleaner technologies. 

Not only can aviation jobs be preserved, but electrification of the aviation ecosystem will serve to create new green jobs related to air travel. This will include jobs in charging infrastructure installation, solar and storage construction, as well as related industries, which must be based locally and use U.S. labor. Further, if the U.S. leads in developing aviation electrification, there will be substantial export opportunities as other nations look to reduce aviation emissions and improve mobility. Potential clean aviation technology markets include countries such as Norway, which has committed to an electrified aircraft fleet by 2040 for all flights under 90 minutes duration, and Scotland, which has committed to a zero emissions airspace. Numerous other countries are actively considering similar policies, creating a significant opportunity for U.S. products.


Aviation emissions, especially lead, are a clear and present danger to the health of Americans and the global climate. Failing to develop and deploy more efficient technology represents an equal danger to U.S. jobs and competitiveness. Thankfully, practical solutions exist today and even more are being developed to mitigate these dangers. To advance this mitigation, the Biden-Harris Administration and legislators should ensure that existing and new federal funding prioritizes holistic electrification of the aviation ecosystem, in addition to enacting legislation and regulations that ensure the success of this transition.

Federal Accessibility Standards for Fully Autonomous Vehicles


Self-driving technology is uniquely positioned to benefit people who cannot drive, including people with travel-limiting disabilities and many older adults. However, the lack of federal policy guiding the development of this technology has led to piecemeal recommendations that largely fail to guarantee accessible use in both public and private implementation scenarios. To leverage the full potential of self-driving technology, the Department of Transportation (DOT) should adopt accessibility standards to support autonomous transportation for people with disabilities and older adults. The Biden-Harris Administration has an important opportunity to reimagine accessible transit, capitalize on ongoing federal research programs such as the Inclusive Design Challenge, and extend the benefits of self-driving technology to those who need it most. If enacted, these recommendations will lead to increased independence, workforce participation, and mobility in the future of transportation.

Mitigating and Preventing the Existing Harms of Digital Surveillance Technology


The rapid adoption of Digital Surveillance Technology (DST) by state and local agencies is taking place in an under-regulated environment that is causing tangible harm to the communities and individuals these same agencies are tasked to protect. DST itself is plagued by fundamental flaws and vulnerabilities, issues compounded by a lack of safeguards in the environments where DST is deployed. The four biggest problems with government use of DST today are:

  1. Governments falling prey to predatory or negligently marketed DST that fails to consistently achieve stated functionalities or meet reasonable standards.
  2. Governments deploying DST in a way that does or could falsely implicate innocent individuals in criminal matters.
  3. A lack of systematic oversight that fails to ensure accountability, equity, transparency, or cybersecurity.
  4. Governments utilizing DST in a manner inconsistent with existing laws, ordinances, and regulations.

While these issues affect everyone, they disproportionately affect those who are falsely implicated in criminal matters as a result of DST, as well as the working poor (who have been historically over-surveilled). In addition to such human costs, overuse or misuse of DST exposes cash-strapped jurisdictions to multimillion-dollar lawsuits for violation of privacy and civil rights.

This proposal offers a set of actions that the Biden-Harris Administration could take to limit the harms of DST. Specifically, we recommend that the administration:

These actions would together begin to rein in the unchecked power of the surveillance complex that has attached itself to our nation’s law-enforcement systems. Doing so would advance racial and community equity across the United States while also helping restore public trust in law-enforcement institutions.

Enabling Better Access to Federal Transportation Funds for Small and Rural Communities


Most federal transportation funds are distributed to state and regional transportation entities by a legislatively set formula for different types of transportation. An exception to this rule is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program (formerly known as the TIGER program). The BUILD program is extremely flexible, with funding available for any kind of surface-transportation project and any government agency, and it the only transportation program that provides direct capital support to local transportation projects. This flexibility has made the BUILD program incredibly popular, receiving 10 times more applications than can be funded. However, the application process is extensive and can require outside assistance to produce, making the application itself too expensive for some areas to take on, especially considering the high level of competition. USDOT should create a simpler application that most public agencies can manage with internal staff to make the program more universally available to communities of all sizes and levels of capacity.