Tackling Transportation's Triple-Threat to the Nation

This entry is now posted at infrastructurist.com as part of a new forum for expert opinions on their site (last week featured pieces by Reps Mica, Rahall and Blumenauer as well as Gov. Rendell; this week it's myself and three other transportation wonks):

Our transportation system poses a triple-threat to the nation –- to our safety, to our energy and climate security, and to our economy. Here’s what policymakers can do about it:

First, ensure the federal program does no harm. Neglect by state transportation departments and politicians’ preference for flashy new projects instead of essential maintenance have put existing assets in danger of collapsing, as happened with the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007. Travelers across America are subject to similar dangers. An eye-popping 500 bridges failed between 1989 and 2003, and nearly 8,000 other bridges face the same issues as the I-35W bridge. Roads and transit also suffer from disrepair no one would tolerate in their own home.

As such, we need a strong “fix-it-first” rule. Substantial investment should be allocated exclusively to repairs, and states and regions must meet a “state of good repair” performance standard to receive further funding. The era of wasteful earmarks such as the infamous “bridge to nowhere” must give way to a ensuring the safety of Americans by fixing our decaying infrastructure.

Next, address oil addiction. Transportation accounts for about one-third of U.S. carbon pollution and 70% of oil consumption. Cars, trucks, planes and trains guzzle 204 billion gallons of oil annually. We are tied to a global oil marketplace, and as prices inexorably rise, billions of our dollars could be transferred to oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. We’re also vulnerable to short-term price shocks, such as in 2008 when gasoline hit $4 per gallon.

We can drive down the oil-intensity of transportation and deliver more mobility choices to consumers by establishing a national oil-savings objective for our federal transportation program and requiring states and regions to help achieve it. Washington should provide financial assistance to meet these objectives by doubling investment in public transportation and establishing new, merit-based, competitive programs for innovative fuel-saving projects.

Finally, tackle mounting economic costs of underinvestment in new capacity. The average commuter spends the equivalent of a full work-week per year stuck in traffic, costing American workers and businesses more than $100 billion in wasted time and fuel. Transportation is now the second largest expense for the average household, higher than food or even health care.

New investment can increase economic output and employment and save consumers money, and some projects have a bigger payoff than others. For example, repair projects and public transportation investments create more jobs per billion dollars invested than new highways, with jobs created directly in project construction as well as indirectly through the manufacturing supply chain and worker re-spending of dollars domestically. The Apollo Alliance finds that boosting yearly investment in transit and intercity rail to $40 billion would generate 3.7 million new jobs and boost annual GDP by $60 billion. This would also help metropolitan economies hum with activity, with salutary effects rippling outward to benefit small towns with bus manufacturers and farms reliant on port cities for access to the marketplace.

Investments in new passenger and freight capacity should rely on a not-so-new financing tool. The United States has helped build infrastructure around the world through special banks such as the World Bank, in turn mobilizing a lot of private sector investment through innovative partnerships. We must leverage scarce taxpayer dollars right here at home with an infrastructure bank making loans to states and regions to build badly needed new roads and rail. Projects must be chosen based on specific results, such as higher economic productivity of cities and suburbs.