Temporary Bills and Lack of Investment Threaten U.S. Infrastructure

Q: The House just passed a three-month highway bill. Will that impact infrastructure investment?

A: On July 28, 2015, the House voted to approve a temporary $8-billion bill extending federal transportation funding until the end of October. They sent it to the Senate only two days before the nation’s road and transit spending would have expired.

Congress has been playing a deadly game of chicken with our roads and bridges. We limp from one temporary transportation bill to another. Partisanship has seemingly ended responsible government. Transport requires long-term planning and investment, not three-month bills.

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration has rated nearly 200,000 bridges—one of every three bridges in the United States—as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. And more than one-fourth of all bridges are more than 50 years old, the average design-life of a bridge. These are bridges that we depend on for a living, and that our families drive on every day. We have all our eggs in one basket, and the basket is falling apart.

Some places still need new roads to ease congestion. Southern California has shown us that adding new lanes and roads doesn’t always solve the problem. But in many places, an extra lane or two will make a huge impact, reducing bottlenecks. Smoothly flowing highways are also safer, more fuel-efficient, and lower polluting.

Q: What about U.S. rail infrastructure?

A: Like our highway system, some rail infrastructure is just fine. Other parts are even worse off. Consider this: A 105-year-old swinging railroad bridge in New Jersey serves 750,000 people each day on 2,000 intercity and commuter trains. It connects in one direction to a 105-year-old badly decaying tunnel under the Hudson River. If the tunnel or bridge goes, the Northeast Corridor rail system from Washington to Boston is out of service, and 550,000 commuters have to find another way to enter New York City. What would be the financial impact to the U.S. economy if that happened? If you add all those commuters to the already overcrowded roads, how will the trucks get around?

Q: Is one alternative to reduce traffic loads?

A: Sometimes those methods don’t make sense financially unless you look at the bigger picture. Yes, Amtrak loses money each year, but it benefits us overall. It takes pressure off our already-over-capacity road system. If there is a major road or bridge failure, it’s crucial to have redundancy and extra capacity.

Is it time to give up a few aircraft carriers? What is more of a threat: militants with machine guns on pickup trucks on the other side of the world, or being on our decrepit U.S. roads where 2.5 million people are injured, and 30,000 die annually? I am not saying militants and rogue nations aren’t a threat, but could we be spending our money more wisely? It’s at least worth discussing.

Our nation also needs to invest in other infrastructure, schools, sewers, high-speed Internet, and electric transmission capability. Our current air traffic control computer system is antiquated. We have structurally deficient dams, and thousands of superfund sites. People involved in transportation should let their voices be heard about the need for maintaining and improving infrastructure. Without adequate investment in roads and bridges, we are costing ourselves much more in the long run with inferior results. The time to start is now. In November, vote for someone who will vote for our infrastructure and for transportation.

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