fresh voices from the front lines of change







If you were stuck on the Washington beltway during the evening rush hour yesterday, you might have suspected that the Washington Metro area’s crumbling beltway had already begun to collapse. Fortunately, yesterday’s gridlock wasn’t the result of a beltway collapse or another busted water main. (It was an ordinary accident.) But without more investment in transportation infrastructure, the day may come when the roads we rely on crumble under our wheels.

While there are many things wrong with the president’s budget, investment in transportation infrastructure is one thing Obama’s budget comes close to getting right.

Back in late March, the Washington Post reported that the Capital Beltway is crumbling. At over 50-years-old the Capital Beltway may be suffering from potholes, crumbling pavement and an eroding underbed, but it won’t be allowed to collapse. Too many “Very Important People” rely on it. But it’s representative of the condition of countless roads and highways Americans rely on.

Now, 210 million U.S. drivers, and the commerce on which they rely, are riding on baby-boom-generation roadways, which like the boomers themselves are no longer so steady and sound.

As reality sinks in, states have moved to raise taxes to fix their roads before it’s too late.

… “There’s too much money spent on just patching, on the quick fix, rather than the long term, and eventually it’s going to catch up on us,” said Edward G. Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor who now heads an infrastructure advocacy group.

It’s catching up now.

Nearly a third of the nation’s major roads need significant repair or replacement, with a far higher percentage in the busiest urban areas. In Washington and its suburbs, it soars to 62 percent.

Forty-two percent of urban roadways suffer from congestion, costing an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and gasoline each year, according to a study released earlier this month by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Like many of the warnings about the need for investment of trillions of dollars to salvage America’s aging infrastructure system, the bottom-line number is so huge that it is difficult for most people to digest.

The president’s budget goes some way towards repairing our transportation infrastructure, with a 50.2 percent increase in the Transportation budget, which includes $50 billion in spending to pay for fixing the nation’s roads, bridges, transit systems, etc. Most of that, $40 billion, would go to the “Fix-It-First” investments Obama touted in his State of the Union address, which would not only put people to work but ensure that urgent repairs to are made roads and nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges.

This is pretty much what the president has proposed before, only to have Congress reject it. And while the president’s 2014 budget promises to offset investment in fixing our roads, bridges, etc., with savings elsewhere in the budget, the administration is already being accused of “punting” and “vagueness” on the question of paying for investment in transportation infrastructure. Never mind that the

That’s probably because nobody wants to utter the “T word”: taxes. Republicans in Congress will almost certainly resist any kind of tax increase to pay for kind of infrastructure investment necessary to keep America rolling, and insist on drastic cuts in some other vital area. The Obama administration itself has nixed paying for transportation infrastructure by increasing the gas tax or enacting a vehicle miles traveled tax.

But we’re already paying. We’re already being taxed to pay for repairing our roads. As the Post article notes, states governments are already increasing taxes to fix their roads before a catastrophic collapse occurs. Maryland (which contains most of the Capital Beltway) and Virginia just passed tax increases to pay for repairs to deteriorating roadways.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), we also pay about $101 billion in time and gasoline spent on crumbling, congested roadways. We’re also paying about $67 billion per year, or $324 per motorist, on repairing wear and tear caused by rough roads. (Washington drivers pay about $578 per year.) That’s not counting the $8 billion in addition costs to freight transportation to get good to market, which we pay for at the cash register.

Not that the president’s budget would solve all of these problems. While it goes further than anything that’s come out of Congress, the president’s budget falls short of the $79 billion annual increase in investment the ASCE says is needed to just to maintain our roads and highways in their current condition. Still, it may be enough to keep America on the road a little while longer.

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