Monday, 10 September 2007
Continuing our September campaign to Raise the Grades on the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, this week ASCE Government Relations will be focusing on the nation’s bridges and roads. The collapse of the I-35 W Bridge in Minneapolis this summer illustrated the dangers decaying and poorly maintained infrastructure can pose to public safety. While the human and economic costs of the tragedy are great, the silver lining appears to be that the public and lawmakers are waking up to the fact that action to solve this crisis must happen now.
As an important first step, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Jim Oberstar -MN) will introduce the National Highway System Bridge Reconstruction Initiative that would provide immediate relief to rehabilitate and repair the bridges on the National Highway System. The initiative imposes a five-cent-a gallon user fee on gasoline for three years to fund the program. ASCE supports this program saying in a letter and testimony to the committee that, not only is this specific program a step in a right direction, it should be the first step to addressing all categories of infrastructure.
As with any proposed tax increase, this new program is sure to be a hotly debated topic. The detractors, however, do not seem to understand the underlying problem and criticize the program as being another example of out of control politically motivated spending. Leading these opponents, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week said that spending decisions for transportation projects were made in a purely political way, favoring pet project earmarks over responsible and cost effective planning. She believes that if earmarks were eliminated, money could be appropriated to projects, such as bridge repairs, that really needed it. While there may be definite reasons to discuss reforms to the earmark process, this issue is about bridge safety and the overall condition of the surface transportation system, not a particular philosophy of governing.
The fact remains that there is an approximately $60 billion gap between annual current investment and the actual cost to improve the nation’s highways and bridges. Even if Congress could eliminate all the alleged "wasteful" spending in the transportation budget, including Peters’ example of the $10 million dollar a year historic covered bridge preservation program, there is still not enough money to meet the well documented needs. Revenues from the current gas tax have not kept pace with inflation, and at the same time, overall gasoline consumption is down relative to vehicle miles traveled and construction costs have risen by about 45% in the last ten years. The math just doesn’t work. Whatever way you try to do it, the conclusion is the same, there are not enough funds to meet the demand.
Tax opponents might point to the Minneapolis bridge disaster and say that the general outcry to do something about bridges will calm down soon enough and everyone will forget. The collapse, however, is just one example of the crumbling infrastructure. Everyday people die in car accidents due to poor road conditions and millions miss time from work and family sitting in traffic. The need is evident and immediate; the time for philosophical debates has passed. Raising the gas tax might not be popular, but it will go a long way to improving our failing infrastructure.
Learn more about current bridge and road conditions and what you can do to help Raise the Grades on America’s Failing Infrastructure at http://www.asce.org/reportcard