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Transport in United States at a Crossroads

With the 2005 passage of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, Congress enacted the largest public works bill in our nation’s history. However, despite the historic investment levels included in that legislation, we continue to fall further behind in meeting our challenges. As we prepare to reauthorize our surface transportation programs next year, the question isn’t how will we afford a new highway bill —the real question is how can we afford not to fund additional investment in our mass transit, highways and bridges? The answer is: We can’t.

The United States is suffering from a transportation crisis. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that in 2005, Americans suffered 4.2 billion hours of travel delay and wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel for an estimated total congestion cost of more than $78 billion. Congestion is worsening in nearly all of our 437 urban areas, while 27 percent of American bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a recent study by The Road Information Program, 23 percent of the nation’s major metropolitan roads have pavement in poor condition, resulting in rough rides that cost the average urban motorist an additional $413 annually in maintenance and repairs. To further drive home the point about the impact of our lack of investment, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure, including the condition and performance of our roads, transit and bridges, a “D.”

In January, the bipartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which was created by Congress and includes eight Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees, issued its report on the status of the surface transportation system. After two years of hearings and meetings in Washington, D.C., and in cities across the country, the commission’s final report identified the significant surface transportation investment gap we are facing. The report estimates that we should be investing $225 billion to $340 billion annually in all modes of transportation. We are currently investing only $85 billion annually. The report outlines in great detail the current lack of investment in our nation’s infrastructure that has brought us to where we are today — a crossroads. We have dramatically increasing congestion. We are seeing bridges collapse. We are not even maintaining the investments made by the Eisenhower generation in the nation’s interstate system.

This lack of investment has a huge impact on our ability to compete internationally. From highways to transit, the U.S. is falling behind. For instance, according to a report by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, “Infrastructure 2007: A Global Perspective,” China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. India spends 3.5 percent while aiming to increase its allocation to 8 percent. By comparison, the U.S. spends just 0.93 percent of its GDP on infrastructure. While our competition modernizes their transportation networks, our system is in decline for lack of maintenance.

On a recent Congressional delegation trip I led to Europe, we saw an impressive subway expansion project in Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona’s transit agency, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, is spending $9 billion on one new 46-kilometer subway line, set to open in 2012. What’s staggering is that what Barcelona is spending on one subway line is almost as much as the $10 billion our federal government will spend on all transit projects nationwide this year.

This much is obvious: We are seeing a trend with our foreign competitors — be it China, India or Europe — making the necessary investments now to ensure they will stay competitive in the future. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to debate whether we can afford to make these critical investments. In a world of just-in-time delivery and globalized competition, an outmatched and congested transportation system is one more factor in our growing trade deficit. American businesses are at a real competitive disadvantage when they can’t predict how long it will take their parts or product to make it to their destinations.

It is imperative that the federal government lead the way in investment in our infrastructure. Without substantial commitment on the federal level, our transportation infrastructure will continue to fragment and deteriorate to a Third World status. Without the needed investment, we will experience more tragedies such as the Minnesota bridge collapse, traffic congestion will grow and transportation bottlenecks will cripple our economy.

The solutions aren’t easy, and there is not one silver bullet. We know that the status quo with inadequate investment is not the answer. For every year we put off increasing our investment, the price only grows. Because of skyrocketing construction costs, the problem will only get more expensive, not less. We need to look at multiple solutions to the problems facing our transportation system. Increased investment in transit and highways, smart land-use planning and development, moving more freight from highways to rail, increased passenger and commuter rail, and even public-private partnerships — that protect the public interest — are all part of the answer.

The bottom line is we cannot afford not to make the investment in our surface transportation system. Our country’s economic future depends on investment today.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

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