U.S. Infrastructure in the Emergency Lane

October 16, 2007

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In addition to the tens of billions of dollars that poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists each year, this summer's bridge collapse in Minnesota has brought the nation's brittle infrastructure back into the spotlight.

Poor road conditions cost motorists in the United States $54 billion a year in 2005 for repairs and operating costs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) most recent Infrastructure Report Card. Yet "the $59.4 billion spent annually is well below the $94 billion needed each year to improve transportation infrastructure conditions nationally," says the ASCE.

Here, infrastructure refers not only to roads, but also to: bridges; airports; brownfields; dams and levees; drinking water and wastewater; and inland waterways. For all these, in its infrastructure action plan, the ASCE has estimated that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure to good condition. Yet "existing funds have been repeatedly raided to pay for other programs."

The plight of U.S. roads was recently echoed by Tim Lynch, senior vice president, Federation Relations and Strategic Planning of the American Trucking Associations. Last month, before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, United States House of Representatives, Lynch testified:

Despite its obvious importance to the nation, significant portions of the National Highway System (NHS) are in poor condition, are routinely congested, and have been starved by insufficient investment. Of the more than 116,000 NHS bridges, over 6,000 are structurally deficient and more than 17,000 are functionally obsolete. Furthermore, 760 NHS bridges are load-posted. Posting of bridges forces trucks to use alternative routes, increasing freight transportation costs and requiring greater fuel use, which produces more emissions. NHS bridges carry nearly two-thirds of the travel on structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges. The current NHS bridge investment backlog is estimated to be $32.1 billion.

Note that this refers only to NHS roads and does not include state and county highways and roads. NHS, a 162,158-mile network of routes, comprises just 4.1 percent of total highway miles, yet it carries nearly 45 percent of total vehicle miles.

Today, congestion on the nation's roadways alone costs drivers $63.1 billion annually, according to the ASCE.

In addition, a report released last month by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) — entitled the 2007 Urban Mobility Report — confirms that congestion is getting worse in urban areas throughout the country with such figures:

Congestion in 2005 caused 4.2 billion hours of travel delay that subsequently resulted in an additional 2.9 billion gallons of fuel consumption with vehicles stuck in traffic; Wasted fuel and wasted time translated into a total congestion cost of $78.2 billion in 2005, which was $5.1 billion more than 2004's tally; and Congestion caused the average peak period traveler to spend an extra 38 hours of travel time and consume an additional 38 gallons of fuel, coming out to $710 per traveler, said the report.

Data for the report was based on the effects of congestion of all 437 urban areas of the U.S. — along with detailed information for 85 specific urban areas — and is based on 2005 figures, which is the most recent year for which complete data is available.

Moreover, truck tonnage is projected to increase, reaching toward the 14 billion ton mark by 2017, Lynch added: "This growth, of course, means that a lot more trucks will be on the road. We estimate another 2.7 million more trucks will be needed to serve the nation's economy, a 40 percent increase."

Today's $70 billion investment in highways and bridges would have to nearly double to improve highway conditions and reduce congestion significantly, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Bridge rehabilitation costs alone are $2 billion short of what is needed annually, and federal investment in highways "must rise by 50 percent above forecasted levels by 2015 just to maintain current levels of highway condition and performance."

Last month the U.S. Senate added and approved a $1 billion amendment that would fund the replacement and rehabilitation of structurally deficient bridges across the country, according to Logistics Management. The amendment came some six weeks after the bridge on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River.

A statement from the office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa.), who offered the amendment, added that for the past five years, an average of $5.3 billion has been spent on bridge rehabilitation and replacement, and this amendment would add to this level by approximately 20 percent. While this additional funding would increase federal funding for bridge repair and replacement, The Associated Press has noted that these additional funds "would barely make a dent in the $65 billion nationwide backlog of bridge repairs identified by the Department of Transportation (DOT)."

The U.S. is roughly "20 years behind in developing, repairing and maintaining its transportation infrastructure," Logistics Management cited William Schutt, an engineer and bridge expert at MATCOR, a firm that designs and installs corrosion prevention systems and technology that protects infrastructure, assets and investment, as having said. He noted that structural problems identified in the late 1970s have not been fixed by "any more than 3 percent to 5 percent."

On Aug. 10, 2005, the Safe Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFE/LU) was enacted. It authorized $286 billion in spending for the six-year period 2004-09 for numerous surface transportation programs, such as highways, transit, freight, safety and research.

"Transportation-related development expenses preferably should come from general revenues, and provide adequate federal funding for public infrastructure improvements and encourage public-private partnerships," says the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

It's hard to take issue with this, but according to the wording of a recent House bill (H.R. 3400), "In the early 1970s, non-defense public investment accounted for about 3.2 percent of gross domestic product but it now accounts for only 2.5 percent."

As Pogo used to say, "I have met the enemy and he is us."

Later this week (Oct. 18) and on Nov. 15, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Committee will meet. Its 15 members represent state and local government, industry, financial institutions, public policy organizations and law firms. Let us hope they can find an acceptable (and feasible) way to find funding for improvements for our roads and bridges.

Resources

Raising the Grades: Small Steps for Big Improvements in Americas Failing Infrastructure American Society of Civil Engineers, 2005

New Study Says U.S. Traffic Congestion Still on a Rough Road by Jeff Berman Logistics Management, Sept. 18, 2007

Structurally Deficient Bridges in the United States Tim Lynch American Trucking Association, Sept. 5, 2007

Transportation Issues National Association of Manufacturers

U.S. Senate Approves $1 billion Amendment for Bridge Improvements by Jeff Berman Logistics Management, Sept. 11, 2007

H.R. 3400: Rebuilding America's Infrastructure GovTrack.us, Aug. 3, 2007 (introduced)

Bridges America Society of Civil Engineers

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