Lack of Action on Transportation Could Doom System

Posted February 25, 2005 at 2:38pm

It only takes a major winter storm to highlight the importance of transportation to the daily lives of Americans and how easily its disruption can have a negative effect on the economy.

Yet Congress’ failure to enact the reauthorization of transportation legislation is the figurative equivalent of a perpetual snowfall. Roads remain unsafe. Traffic stays at a standstill. Needed projects cannot be funded. Construction crews cannot be hired. People cannot get where they need to go in a timely fashion.

Both the Senate and House passed multiyear highway bills during the 108th session of Congress. But partisan politics prior to the

November election killed any hope of a compromise bill.

The Transportation Department estimates that the annual federal investment in roads must increase by 17 percent per year simply to maintain the nation’s existing highway and bridge system. The department estimates that improving the system will require 65 percent more resources than is currently invested. We are not spending the money necessary to maintain the status quo, let alone make improvements, and conditions are getting worse.

A 2002 Transportation Department report found that more than one in three major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and nearly one in three bridges are deficient or structurally obsolete. The percentage of these substandard roads and bridges is increasing.

The average “rush hour” in America’s cities is now more than 5 hours a day and growing. Annual hours of traveler delay due to congested conditions is also increasing dramatically — from 4.8 hours in 1987 to 15.2 hours in 2000.

Most alarming, nearly 43,000 Americans continue to lose their lives on our highways and roads each year.

The reasons to pass a multiyear highway bill are plenty. Funding our transportation programs at sufficient levels is critical to improve highway safety, alleviate congestion, create jobs and spark economic growth.

Many of the 43,000 highway fatalities can be blamed on poor road conditions including roadside obstacles, poorly marked roads, crumbling pavement and narrow two-lane roads carrying traffic volume significantly higher than that for which they were intended. States desperately need funds to make improvements at hazardous locations that pose a danger to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Without a new highway bill, safety will not improve.

More than half of respondents in a recent national sampling told The Washington Post that the traffic in their area has gotten somewhat worse or much worse in the past five years. This has a terrible effect on quality of life. More time in traffic means less time with family, lower productivity at work, and susceptibility to the discouraging new cultural phenomenon known as “road rage.”

Legendary hour-plus commutes in cities like Washington, D.C., have spread to quieter cities like Cincinnati and Kansas City. Without a new highway bill, congestion will continue to grow.

As a former governor committed to supporting job growth, I learned long ago that good roads are essential to good jobs and a strong economy.

The Transportation Department estimates that every $1 billion in new federal investment in highways creates 47,500 jobs. These are good construction jobs, paying an average of $19 per hour. There may be no quicker way to jump-start the economy than to build roads.

The positive economic impact spreads beyond job creation. The Associated General Contractors suggest that every $1 billion of new federal investment in highways yields $500 million spread through other sectors of the economy. Without a new highway bill, we will not realize this economic growth and will in fact lose jobs.

The May 31 deadline for a new bill is approaching quickly, but we do not have to start over. Keeping the positive features of last year’s legislation will give us a head start this year.

Congress has the opportunity this spring to agree on a funding level sufficient to meet our coming transportation needs without the specter of an election looming in the immediate future.

Detractors of last year’s Senate-passed funding level of $318 billion complained that it was a budget-buster. The fact is this bill did not add one penny to the deficit. Americans pay a dedicated tax every time they use a gas pump that is used to fund highway improvements. There is no magic number, but let us not kid ourselves that we can fund the needed roads, bridges, safety and transit projects in all 50 states on the cheap.

America — the most mobile nation on earth — is experiencing tremendous growth in workers and in their travel. Growth in travel corresponds directly with rising incomes, rising employment and a stronger economy.

Let us ease the way by enacting a transportation bill that meets our needs this year and for the foreseeable future, and do it by Memorial Day.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure.