There were months of warnings, numerous dire predictions and plenty of pontificating about the pending Highway Trust Fund shortfall and what should be done to keep it afloat. But despite all that, the best Congress could come up with is a patchwork extension that keeps the fund solvent for a few more months before reaching a crisis level yet again. The transportation sector is, as usual, handed a short-term “solution” that fails to solve anything.
It’s discouraging to see the HTF get pushed aside with virtually no effort to resolve the issues that brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. It’s even more disheartening when you realize this is likely just the first of many transportation-related extensions to come given the pending expiration of the federal highway bill, MAP-21, this fall. MAP-21 was authorized only after nearly a dozen extensions, and still failed to deliver sufficient funding — or long-term assurances to state DOTs — in order to address the deteriorating state of America’s roads and bridges.
With each delay, the conditions worsen and the cost to repair the damage rises exponentially. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx wrote in his July 22nd blog post (“We can’t keep hitting the “Snooze” button on transportation”, www.dot.gov): “Every year, the cost of catching up grows more and more out of reach. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that, at current spending levels, we will fall $850 billion short of transportation needs nationally by just 2020. And every year, we’re pushing the cost of that deficit forward onto our children and their children.”
We have already fallen seriously behind in infrastructure quality. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013 (http://bit.ly/N44EuL), which takes into account the quality and availability of roads, railroads, air transport, ports, electricity and telecommunications, the U.S. infrastructure has plummeted from fifth globally in 2002 to 25th in the latest study, behind even some developing countries such as Oman and Barbados. This substantial drop in just over a decade is an indication of how quickly the decline is occurring.
The reasons behind the decline in transportation infrastructure in particular, and the hesitation to address it, are numerous. Though largely political, the willingness of both Congress and the American public to accept the status quo may also be partly at fault. As Secretary Foxx states, “The real danger is that our chronic underinvestment in transportation is starting to feel normal because we’ve been doing it so long.”
If we continue to accept a failing infrastructure as “normal,” as a nation we will be figuratively and literally going nowhere fast. Traffic will become increasingly snarled in many urban areas, reducing national productivity while increasing fuel consumption and overall vehicle costs. Our competitiveness and economy will suffer as the cost to transport goods climbs exponentially higher and the level of disposable income, eaten up by higher travel expenses, quickly declines. Add in the costs of more frequent accidents, higher insurance, growing medical care requirements, etc., and the financial repercussions become daunting.
As a country, we cannot afford complacency when it comes to maintaining, repairing and updating our federal highway and bridge system. And we should not be willing to tolerate further delays in producing a reasonable funding solution. Be sure to let your Congressional leaders know it’s time to get the problem solved, and not just punt, pass and kick it down the line for someone else to deal with in the not so near future.