Missing the Mark on the Infrastructure Debate

Nov 1, 2011

Road Closed

An op-ed penned by Washington Post reporter Charles Lane that appeared in that paper’s editorial pages yesterday questions the case for increased federal investment in transportation infrastructure investment. Perhaps Lane went on an early Halloween candy binge, and the resulting sugar rush clouded his thinking. His analysis is endemic of a lack of understanding surrounding the case for increased investment.

To support his claims, Lane cites his personal observations of the nation’s roads during a family car trip and maintains that America’s middling global ranking in infrastructure quality as judged by the World Economic Forum is misleading. His arguments are overpowered by the wealth of research documenting our nation’s degrading infrastructure.  The maintenance backlog for our nation’s roads and bridges is $624 billion and growing. That figure doesn’t include hundreds of billions of dollars in new road and bridge construction that is necessary to accommodate an expected 60% increase in highway freight tonnage by 2040. Our infrastructure challenge is considerable given that total federal, state, and local capital spending on infrastructure adds up to only $78 billion a year.

This lack of investment has enormous economic consequences. Every year, congestion drains $100 billion from the U.S. economy. Jobs are also a casualty. Without adequate levels of investment, the economy will shed 640,000 jobs by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in a study released earlier this year, found that inadequate investment will result in $3.1 trillion in lost economic growth, $430 billion in additional transportation costs for business, a drop in household income by more than $7,000, and a $28 billion decline in U.S. exports by 2020. The Chamber’s recent Transportation Performance Index also documents the economic consequences of not addressing transportation system performance.

Infrastructure investment is not just about efficiency and our ability to compete with the rest of the world. It’s also a matter of safety.  A 2009 study by the Transportation Construction Coalition shows that obsolete road design, roadway conditions, and a traffic network operating well overcapacity contributes to more than half—52.7 percent—of the nearly 42,000 American deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes each year and 38 percent of the non-fatal injuries. In terms of accident causation, it is the single most lethal contributing factor—greater than speeding, alcohol or non-use of seat belts.

It does not take a genius to figure out that highway and transit systems that were first built in 1956, when President Eisenhower commissioned the construction of the interstate system, are nearing the end of their useful life and are in dire need of rehabilitation. Our aging infrastructure is being kept alive with triaged maintenance, a gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993, and a Highway Trust Fund that has lost 80% of its purchasing power as a result of inflation and rising construction costs. 

For the sake of near- and long-term job creation, stronger economic growth, and enhanced U.S. competitiveness, Congress must pass robust surface transportation reauthorization legislation that addresses revenue shortfalls and includes necessary and urgent policy and program reforms. 

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