May 16, 2016, 06:00 am
By Bud Wright
This year, as candidates vie for political offices across the nation and voters consider policies they want those candidates to pursue, there is one fundamental policy we hope they will keep in mind – how to sustain our multilayered national transportation system.
There simply is no way to keep our economy healthy and build more economic muscle if we continue to let our highways and bridges, transit systems, barge routes, seaports and airports fall further behind population levels and strains on those systems.These are aging networks that need significant updating just to deal with today’s unacceptable congestion levels. The recent midweek shutdown of the deteriorating D.C.-area Metro subway system was a stunning example of the kind of disruptions we can expect unless we face up to the investments we need to make.
In each segment of the transportation system, there is already a major backlog of construction, renovation and safety improvements. To prepare for future movements of commerce and people, the nation needs to get started sooner than later, or else the backlog just piles up along with the cost. Failure to spend now does not result in savings. In fact it does just the opposite: Deferred upkeep brings even greater cost because it means facilities degrade to the point they require major repairs.
Study after study, from AASHTO and others, show that while we have modestly increased our investment levels at both the federal and state levels, it is not nearly enough to sustain our existing facilities at rates that will improve the mobility of people and commerce.
This is true even after Congress in December passed the first long-term surface transportation funding bill in a decade, adding some money to the Highway Trust Fund. Core federal-aid highway and transit funding rose but modestly in that legislation, giving states and local governments a mild boost but not enough to meaningfully cut down their project backlog.
This year Congress must reauthorize aviation programs, and may pass a waterway projects bill. Both will be opportunities to improve investments in those parts of the transportation system. But Congress is not considering legislation to make the kind of significantly stronger investments – across the entire transportation network – that would clearly deal with our congestion and maintenance problems, investments to build sinew for the nation and clear an often clogged system.
Lawmakers are missing an historic opportunity to take advantage of low interest rates and materials costs, which make every dollar spent go much farther than if we keep putting it off.
A first step would be to put the Highway Trust Fund on solid footing far into the future, by dedicating a long-term revenue stream that would do more than erase annual shortfalls between current spending levels and incoming excise taxes. Congress could make that trust fund sustainable by first determining the actual national need for a change, and then providing enough revenue to meet that need.
A few candidates are indeed saying they would tackle infrastructure needs if they win their races, but news coverage often ignores this issue. We call on candidates at all levels in federal, state and local elections to spell out how they would improve transportation services. We call on voters to demand of candidates an action plan, asking them for details in town halls, social media and other venues.
We call on the nation to use this major election year to help set the United States on a path to building a truly strong and sustainable transportation system, one that makes visible and steady progress to improving our mobility and quality of life.
Frederick “Bud” Wright is executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).