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Thinking big on infrastructure

bridge snooperThe Missouri DOT does a bridge inspection. Many of the nation’s bridges are deemed functionally or structurally deficient.

All That’s Trucking blog by Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief

Kudos to U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins for daring to think big when it comes to infrastructure. Higgins, a Democrat from western New York State, is proposing something “unprecedented in this era of $1.3 trillion annual deficits,” as the Buffalo News reports: a $1.25 trillion, five-year plan to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges, railroads, ports and airports.

The “Nation Building Here at Home Act,” which he plans to introduce later this month, is a massive infrastructure spending bill that dwarfs President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. It’s unlikely to go anywhere in Washington, where Congress has just been extending funding at current levels for a few months at a time because it’s unable to agree on a plan to pay for needed repairs, maintenance and expansion of the nation’s highways.

Higgins admits the bill is likely to go nowhere. The point of the bill, he says, is to start a national debate over a very important question: Are we going to let the nation crumble, or are we going to do something about it?


“This isn’t a stimulus bill; it’s a nation-building bill,” Higgins told the Buffalo News. “It’s rebuilding this country as we’ve rebuilt other countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — in recent years.”

Higgins told Politico in an interview, “The rational political system would embrace this because it makes an abundance of sense,” Higgins said. “But as know you, Congress is not acting rationally and is not a highly-functioning institution.”

It’s a bargain at today’s low interest rates, he contends, and will create jobs and economic growth. In fact, the Buffalo paper reports, Higgins says the number of jobs the program would create — 5.5 million, according to the New America Foundation — would result in so much additional tax revenue and economic growth that the real cost of the infrastructure plan would be only about half the $1.25 trillion set aside in the bill.

“Deteriorating infrastructure is subject to ‘cost acceleration,’ where repair or replacement costs grow with time. A project that costs $5 million or $6 million to repair now may cost upwards of $30 million to repair merely two years from now,” the New America Foundation said in a report last year called “The Way Forward.”

After reading that report, Higgins contacted one of its co-authors, Robert Hockett of Cornell University, and set about turning the think tank’s research into a proposed law.

Long overdue

As we reported in our March issue of HDT, back in 2008, a panel of congressionally appointed transportation experts reported to Congress on a comprehensive analysis that was supposed to provide the structure for the pending 2009 reauthorization of the federal highway program. (That’s right, the legislation still stuck in Congress was originally due in 2009.)

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, a bipartisan group of 12 officials from industry, academia and government, spent almost two years analyzing the nation’s surface transportation system.

Their report concluded that:

First, the social contract under which the government assesses user fees to pay for construction and maintenance of the Interstate System is no longer working and needs to be rejuvenated. Now that the system is complete, support for the user fee has diminished – in part because of the perception that the money is not being well spent.

Second, the country has fallen behind on maintenance and improvement, with potentially disastrous consequences if the situation is not remedied. The infrastructure is aging and needs much more investment just to keep pace, much less improve. For example, slowdowns and fuel wastage caused by congestion are costing almost $80 billion a year.

Third, the system of governance needs comprehensive reform in order to restore public trust in the program. The commission called for restructuring the Department of Transportation to emphasize goals and performance standards rather than modes of transportation, and to create a new national freight program. It said the government must be more disciplined about where and how it spends the money, and that the excessive time lag between concept and conclusion of highway projects is wasting billions of dollars.

There is general agreement on these issues in the transportation community, but that agreement falls apart when the conversation turns to funding.

A majority of the commission reluctantly concluded that there is no way to meet the challenge without raising fuel taxes: other fundraising methods, such as tolling and private investment, should be part of the mix but cannot provide all the money that’s needed. The majority added, however, that a fuel tax hike is a stopgap measure. In the long run the country needs to wean itself off the fuel tax and shift to a mileage-based system using roadside telemetry to keep track of vehicles and distance.

On the other side, a minority of the commission was adamantly opposed to raising the fuel tax. This group believed the money would need to come from greatly increased private investment and tolling techniques such as congestion pricing.

Can we afford it?

In a blog post last fall, Higgins noted that “The World Economic Forum ranks America 23rd in infrastructure quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D grade. Transportation for America reports that there are 63,000 structurally deficient bridges in our country including 99 in my community of Western New York. And the Chamber of Commerce claims that we will suffer $336 billion in lost growth over the next five years unless we repair our infrastructure.

“To those who believe we can’t afford to make investments at this time, I say we can’t afford not to.”

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