Monday, July 28, 2008

US Transportation Infrastructure Woes

There is a great article from today's The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about how cutbacks in driving are impacting both the federal highway system and mass-transit expansion projects.

The US Department of Transportation released a report that notes over the past 7 months, Americans have reduced their driving by over 40 billion miles. In the Northeast, which incorporates both New England along with New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, there was a 4.2% reduction in vehicle travel from May 2007 to May 2008.

While the cutbacks are good in terms of some federal policy goals such as curbing emissions and reducing oil consumption, from a funding standpoint this is not a positive situation. Federal fuel taxes largely help to finance highway and mass transit systems. As oil costs rise, so does the price for construction materials including asphalt. These factors make the road, bridge and train infrastructure that much more costly to maintain.

Of course, cities, states and the Feds didn't do a great job of maintaining our transportation infrastructure before the substantial rise in fuel costs started to impact our country.
About 25% of bridges in the U.S. are either "functionally obsolete" or "structurally deficient," like the Mississippi River bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last August, killing 13 people.
Scary! I know some of the roads that I use frequently have been impacted by bridge issues. In Grafton, alone, a major bridge has been out of service for years. And it looks like a bridge is being repaired in the Millbury center area. Who knows how long that will take to fix? And look at the havoc the Longfellow Bridge that connects Boston and Cambridge has raised this summer.

Along with bridges, one out of every seven miles of the nation's roads has been rated "not acceptable" by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. To get our roads up to snuff, the Commission said that $225 billion a year is needed. Our current spending level is 40% that figure. Yikes!
The Bush administration is expected to release as early as Monday figures projecting a deficit of $5 billion or more in the Highway Trust Fund for next year. Thanks to steady increases in driving, since it was set up under President Dwight Eisenhower, the trust historically has run a surplus. It steers gasoline-tax revenue through a federal appropriations process before sending it back to the states.

This issue alone has sent lobbyists for business groups into overdrive on Capital Hill. Last Wednesday, the House passed an $8 billion bill for highway and mass-transit projects. This bill is expected to pass through the Senate, even though the President has some reservations. And on Thursday, an additional $1 billion for bridge repair was approved by Congress. In 2009, Congress is considering approving a six-year transportation bill that would include more than $400 billion in spending.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said administration officials are crafting an overhaul plan aimed at shaping the debate. The goal would be to give states more flexibility to set transportation spending, while making it easier for them to tap private-sector dollars. Also under consideration: asking Congress to loosen restrictions on states levying new tolls on interstate highways.

Experts do not think that driving rates will "bounce back" like they did after the gas crises in the 1970s.

Amtrak ridership is up 11% this year. Mass transit systems in areas including Seattle and Florida have seen ridership spikes of more than 30%.

Earlier this year, the House passed legislation that would provide an additional $1.7 billion to transit agencies over two years. Both chambers have passed bills that would significantly boost Amtrak funding.

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