HNTB’s Pete Rahn: Transportation Underinvestment Cannot Continue

January 6, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo., Jan. 6, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — This week, the U.S. House repealed the mechanism that assured critical federal transportation investments in highway and transit occur in a predictable way. The resulting uncertainty makes it difficult for states to undertake multi-year transportation projects, potentially leading to dire consequences for every American.

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Even before this repeal, our nation had allowed its transportation system to fall so far into disrepair that it is no longer a celebrated asset. It has become a national liability. This past October, a bipartisan panel of experts co-chaired by former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner issued a report stating the United States needs to invest an additional $134 billion to $262 billion per year through 2035 to maintain and improve the system. Investing more, not less, is what’s needed.

The cumulative total is in the trillions of dollars. How much longer before the amount becomes so high we throw up our hands and declare the system’s condition irreversible?

Well, time is up. We can no longer afford to under invest in our transportation infrastructure.

Yet, even as our roads and bridges deteriorate around us, our political leaders are pledging not to raise taxes and, in fact, potentially eliminating funding that’s currently available. Such sweeping promises will cost Americans jobs and spell trouble for our nation’s infrastructure and economic future.

Our transportation system isn’t free. Users are supposed to pay for its costs, but we have fallen woefully behind. The federal gas tax, the primary revenue source nationally for highways, bridges and a portion of transit, hasn’t seen an increase since 1993. At 18.4 cents, the current tax has eroded in value to less than 12 cents today, and it can’t keep up with growing demand, which means we aren’t keeping up with our global competitors.

U.S. investment in transportation infrastructure falls far behind that of China, Brazil, Russia and European nations. According to the bipartisan panel’s report, “Well Within Reach: America’s New Transportation Agency,” failure to adequately maintain and invest in our transportation systems means not only gridlocked roads and deteriorating bridges in the near term, but a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.

China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. Europe and India invest 5 percent. In the United States, we spend less than 3 percent of our GDP on infrastructure when transportation is estimated to be as much as 18 percent of the economy. Does that make sense to anyone?

Our grandparents and great grandparents built a transportation system that was the envy of the world and bequeathed it to us. Their visionary transportation network is how we became an economic superpower. What are we doing to ensure the next generation will have the same advantage? Nothing. America has squandered its rich inheritance. We will be the first generation in U.S. history to leave our children a transportation infrastructure that is in worse condition than the one we inherited:

  • Approximately 61,000 miles (37 percent) of all lane miles on the National Highway System are in poor or fair condition. Poor roads cost the average motorist $402 annually in vehicle operating expenses.
  • More than 152,000 bridges – one in every four – are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
  • The nation’s largest public transit agencies face an $80 billion maintenance backlog.
  • Demand for freight rail is expected to double by 2035. The Association of American Railroads estimates that an investment of $148 billion is needed to keep pace with economic growth and to ensure it can carry the volume of freight forecasted by then.
  • Congestion is crippling. American motorists spent an additional 4.2 billion hours and purchased an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel for an annual congestion cost of $78 billion in 2005.
  • Delays caused by highway bottlenecks cost freight trucks alone more than $8 billion a year.

It’s ironic. As a nation, we have a voracious appetite for reality TV, but when faced with the reality of our own economic mortality, we choose to ignore it. America is not an immortal republic. We have kryptonite-like vulnerabilities, and one of them is our failing transportation infrastructure.

The new Congress must approve a long-term transportation authorization bill that acknowledges our nation’s precarious state and allocates the resources needed to reclaim this precious asset. That could mean implementing several solutions, including raising the federal gas tax until a long-term, sustainable funding source can be found.

This generation inherited a quality of life better than any on earth. It is time we paid for the true cost of the transportation infrastructure we’re using – something we haven’t been asked to do in a long, long time.

Prior to serving as leader national transportation practice for HNTB Corporation, Rahn was executive director of the Missouri Department of Transportation and the New Mexico Department of Transportation. He also is a past president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an organization that represents all state DOTs. For more information, visit www.hntb.com.

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