Us Highways, Bridges Listed in Critical Condition

Sept. 1, 2007
JUST OVER a month ago, we got a graphic reminder that the US transportation infrastructure is in a state of serious decline. At least 11 people died when

JUST OVER a month ago, we got a graphic reminder that the US transportation infrastructure is in a state of serious decline. At least 11 people died when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed on a warm summer afternoon at the beginning of August.

The US highway system once was the envy of the rest of the world. Starting in the mid 1950s, the United States invested hundreds of billions of dollars to build a massive system of highways and bridges. Those days are long gone, though, and the American Society of Civil Engineers gives an overall grade of D+ at best to America's infrastructure.

Recent reports indicate that at least 140,000 bridges across the United States have been rated structurally deficient or structurally obsolete. Our highway system, from one end of the country to the other, is breaking down at an alarming rate. Existing highways and roads are becoming extremely congested, and little is being done to fix the problems.

While China invests around 9% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) in highways and bridges, the United States coughs up just 0.75% of annual GDP. Some estimates project that it would cost approximately $1.7 trillion over five years just to restore the existing highway system.

Current federal highway funding is woefully inadequate, and the funding bills are larded up with pork-barrel spending for unnecessary projects, such as hike-and-bike trails and bridges to nowhere. Only a small percentage of the money actually goes into critically needed infrastructure repairs, and people are dying as a result.

Even with the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, it's clear that our elected officials still don't get it when it comes to transportation infrastructure funding. For instance, Sen Hillary Clinton, D-NY, has proposed spending $10 billion over 10 years for repairs and upgrades for roads, bridges, waterways, and seaports. She also would double funding to $600 million a year for Department of Transportation congestion reduction programs. This is all just a drop in the bucket, compared with what is really needed.

It is particularly worrisome that the United States faces a looming shortfall of more than $4 billion in the federal Highway Trust Fund in fiscal year 2009. Immediate action is needed to avert this crisis, but the current congressional leadership seems too busy playing partisan politics to do anything about it.

The highway system is critical to the US economy. Trucks haul the overwhelming majority of the freight moved in the United States, and trucking's share of freight tonnage is projected to reach 14 billion tons by 2017, a 31% increase over 2005 levels, according to data from the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Traffic congestion already costs the United States $168.3 billion a year, and the cost is rising by the day. “By 2020, we are going to have gridlock in the major metropolitan areas of this country,” Patrick E Quinn, former ATA chairman, said during the National Tank Truck Carriers annual meeting earlier this year.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recently adopted a series of recommendations to address the transportation infrastructure problems. Their 11-point plan deserves serious consideration:

#1. Meeting America's transportation needs for the future will require a multi-modal approach that preserves what has been built today, improves system performance, and adds substantial capacity.

#2. Surface transportation investment needs to be increased to the levels required to keep the United States competitive in the global economy and to meet America's 21st Century mobility needs.

#3. Congress should take a four-phase approach to increase Highway Trust Fund revenues to $73 billion a year by 2015.

#4. In addition to more Highway Trust Fund revenues, more federal funding is needed from other sources for freight gateways, connectors, corridors, and border crossings.

#5. Existing federal programs that increase capacity and efficiency in freight-rail transportation should be continued.

#6. A National Rail Transportation Policy should be established.

#7. The federal government should provide support to multi-state/regional investment banks to finance improvements to regionally and nationally significant freight projects.

#8. The federal government should encourage the private sector to invest in operational and capacity improvements that can relieve freight bottlenecks and improve the flow of goods and services.

#9. Preserve today's 47,000-mile Interstate Highway System so that it lasts for the next 50 years.

#10. Add nearly as much capacity to the Interstate Highway System over the next 50 years as was built during the last 50.

#11. Resources available through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund and the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund should be used for their legislated purposes.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.