Time to Get America Moving: Invest in Transportation Infrastructure

Traffic sucks...our money away, as well as our time.

Speaking of Time, the recent issue of the magazine had this to say about the problem:

"Americans spend an extra 34 hours a year in their cars because of traffic. The reason: although fewer people are working, more Americans are taking jobs farther from their homes...The [Texas Transportation Institute] expects tie-ups to climb as the economy improves. Coincidentally, President Obama recently proposed spending $50 billion to upgrade our infrastructure, which might ease some of that congestion. Many Republicans say we can't afford it. But the TTI estimates that congestion already costs us $101 billion a year, or $713 per urban commuter, in extra fuel and wasted time."

Setting aside the time Americans waste in traffic, the cost of transportation is putting a strain on most family budgets. And it's certainly putting the pinch on the federal government's budget.

Last week I attended a highly informative -- albeit dispiriting -- conference hosted by the Washington Post, entitled Fixing America's Foundation: Rebuilding America's Transportation Infrastructure. A subsuquent story by the newspaper ran this apt yet alarming headline: "‘Gargantuan large’ investment in infrastructure needed, experts say."

No kidding.

Recognized experts ranging from policy analysts and business executives to politicians like House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fl) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood all agreed that when it comes to America's old and crumbling infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails, runways) it's crisis time. Decades of deferred maintainance and ever-increasing usage have contributed to the current problem, marked by a growing backlog of repair needs but not enough funds to fix our extensive, mutli-model transportation network.

It's as if we've reached the seminal two roads converging in the wood but the bridge is out on one and the other has too many potholes.

Why has it come to this? As the Washington Post put it: "The problem is twofold. Although complaints about traffic congestion are commonplace, to the average consumer the transportation system appears to be working reasonably well. And...the amount of money to restore and expand it is so enormous that few taxpayers can relate."

To wit, the Post noted: 

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that an investment of $1.7 trillion is needed between now and 2020 to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the ends of their life cycles.
  • The Urban Institute puts the price tag at $2 trillion.
  • Last year, a report by 80 experts led by former federal transportation secretaries called for a $262 billion annual investment.
  • Failure to invest now will only increase the bill later -- already, infrastructure deficiencies add $97 billion a year to the cost of operating vehicles and result in travel delays that cost $32 billion, according to the civil engineers.

The challenge we face as a nation is enormous, yet our national leaders are clogging up the lanes. In addition to holding up the president's modest $50 billion infrastructure-improvement jobs bill, Congress is dithering over when and how to reauthorize the federal transporation bill to the tune of roughly $50 billion a year. So, ironically, political gridlock is worsening our congestion woes.

There is some good news to report, however. The U.S. Department of Transportation just announced nearly $1 billion in grants to more than 300 rail, transit and clean bus projects to support President Obama administration's push for infrastructure work to generate jobs. The $928.5 million in grants -- for a range of transit projects from streetcars to hybrid diesel buses -- come from three fiscal 2011 Federal Transit Administration programs threatened by House Republicans with a budget ax. This kind of funding puts people to work -- our neighbors, friends and families.

"Investing in America's transit systems, rails, roads, ports and airports will generate tens of thousands of construction-related jobs and put more money in the pockets of working Americans," said DOT Secretary LaHood. "But we must do more. Congress needs to pass the American Jobs Act so we can continue to invest in critically needed projects like these, to repair and rebuild our nation's transportation system."

NRDC agrees. Let's get America moving by passing a long-term, transformative transportation bill that invests in smarter ways to get us where we need to go.