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Investment Vital to American Roads

In 1919, a young Army colonel drove from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. His hazardous voyage across dirt trails and dilapidated bridges took 62 days. Years later, after observing the benefits of the sophisticated German autobahn while leading America to victory in war, that same individual would guide construction of the road network that has evolved into our modern national highway system. His westward trip, President Dwight Eisenhower related, “had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

Thus was created a compact where the American people invest in our transportation infrastructure when we buy gas. User fees collected at the pump feed into the Highway Trust Fund, and equitable allocation of Highway Trust Fund dollars to the states finances highway construction despite geographical differences and topographical challenges.

The result of this infrastructure investment is the finest network of roads existing anywhere in the world. Likewise, the American people are the most mobile society in history. Unlike the young Eisenhower, today you can make a transcontinental journey by car in a matter of days.

[IMGCAP(1)]Recently, Congress passed a budget that provides for only limited increases in infrastructure investment. This parsimony is shortsighted and will have serious long-term consequences. Industry experts say that highway funding at all levels of government must increase by 42 percent annually just to maintain roads and bridges in their current physical condition and to prevent traffic congestion from worsening.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is working to reauthorize the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century. This is not wasteful government spending. Neither is it a partisan matter. We have a saying on the T&I Committee, the largest standing committee in Congress: “There are no Republican roads, no Democratic roads, only American roads.”

TEA-21 was the most successful public works project in our nation’s history. It funded rural highways, increased mass-transit use, financed technology-based intelligent transportation systems, and improved highway safety. These efforts have led to the lowest motor vehicle fatality rate on record and the highest percentage of seat belt use ever. Likewise, congestion mitigation efforts and programs aimed at scenic byways have aided air quality and land-use efforts.

But there is much more work to do, and the need to further invest in our infrastructure is now more critical than ever. Increased infrastructure investment would enable us to upgrade and improve our transportation network, and it would provide a much-needed lift to our sagging economy.

The Federal Highway Administration states that almost one-fifth of our highways are in poor or mediocre condition, as are one-third of state roads. Alarmingly, more than 20,000 of the bridges included in our Strategic Highway Network, which the Department of Defense would rely on for mobilization against global and domestic threats, are rated as “deficient.”

The highway administration further notes that over the past decade, passenger miles traveled and truck traffic each increased by about 40 percent; meanwhile, interstate capacity increased by only 6 percent. Traffic congestion in cities with populations of less than 500,000 actually experienced a whopping 217 percent increase from 1987 to 2000. The total cost to the U.S. economy in lost productivity and wasted motor fuel approaches $68 billion annually. Moreover, our needs are only going to grow with more car travel and increasing North American Free Trade Agreement freight movements.

Further, it would have been impossible for the responders who bravely rushed in at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in that Pennsylvania field to reach the disaster sites in a timely manner without the benefit of our coordinated infrastructure. Likewise, a reliable transportation network is an imperative during wartime while the possibility of terrorist strikes remains high.

We must act to meet this need by crafting a diverse set of solutions that incorporates construction, technology, mass transit, safety advancements and the like.

Infrastructure investment is also the tonic for our ailing economy. As I recently related when addressing the International Union of Operating Engineers National Convention, the Transportation Department calculates that every $1 billion we invest in our highways creates 47,500 good-paying jobs and provides $6.1 billion of economic activity in return. At a time when our states are facing their worst financial crises since the end of World War II, hard-working individuals are losing jobs, and Americans are struggling to afford necessities such as health care, we should be exploring proven methods of economic stimulus such as infrastructure investment.

Importantly, infrastructure investment puts money in the pockets of those Americans who need it most so they can provide for their families. A critical feature of all infrastructure bills since the 1930s has been the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay employees the locally prevailing wage. Although opponents suggest that it wastes money, paying the fair wage actually assures better craftsmanship because employers will use the most competent and productive workers. This higher quality work ensures less waste and enables cost control while providing for working Americans.

If the American people can be called upon to pay billions to rebuild Iraq, can’t America’s government commit sufficient resources to sustain America’s workers and keep America growing?

Through sufficient infrastructure investment, Congress has the opportunity to upgrade our transportation network, create jobs and enable our nation to become ever stronger.

Our future demands it. Our economy needs it.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is ranking member on the Resources Committee.

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