Fixated on Funding
By Therese Dunphy
Political cowardice. It seems to be the only logical conclusion to the question of why, two years after the expiration of SAFETEA-LU, Congress has yet to pass a new long-term transportation bill. While there have been considerable challenges, none are new or surprising. Clearly, fuel taxes impacted by increasing CAFE standards don’t offer a sustainable funding mechanism.
What does seem shocking is that elected officials who purport to want economic improvement fail to act on an issue that is such an economic drain. “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation,” a new report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, notes that deficiencies in America’s surface transportation systems cost households and businesses nearly $130 billion in 2010.
And as the nation continues to underinvest, it falls further behind. Consider that China is spending 9 percent of its GDP on transportation infrastructure. Canada spends 4 percent of its GDP on transportation infrastructure. The United States? A mere 1.7 percent. As former Gov. Rendell (D-Pa.) pointed out in an Aug. 11 Wall Street Journal letter to the editor, the United States was ranked number one by the World Economic Forum in terms of infrastructure economic competiveness as recently as 2005. Today, it is ranked 15th.
In the meantime, The Council of State Governments reports that more than 150,000 miles (45 percent) of federal highways and major roads in the United States are not in good condition; more than 71,000 of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient, with an additional 78,000 that are functionally obsolete; and more than 20 states are expected to reduce transportation investments because of lack of action on federal transportation reauthorization.
John Cooper, director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, told The Huntsville Times that the House transportation bill — which authorizes $35 billion a year, down from the current $50 billion-a-year level authorized this year — could spell a 20-percent cut in its $1 billion annual budget. “If we lose $200 million out of $1 billion that we have some discretion over, it will kill our capacity projects because it will take every penny we have to maintain the roads we have,” Cooper said.
As Congress’ so-called Super Committee works through its plans to reduce $1.5 trillion in debt over the next decade, it’s important we should remind its members that infrastructure spending is an investment, not an expense. Maybe we should arrange a cross-country bus tour for the panel’s 12 members. A few days of traveling America’s crumbling highways and structurally deficient bridges might convince them that this is one area of government spending that can’t afford any further reductions.
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