Unhappy trails

Congressional gridlock sparks highway gridlock

Congressional gridlock sparks highway gridlock

March 19, 2005|by Ronald W. Kosh

Did you know that a federal trust fund, to which you likely contribute, is in deep financial crisis? And it affects you every day.

It's the Federal Transportation Trust Fund and it's on life support. AAA Mid-Atlantic believes it's high time for citizens to be concerned about America's highways. Right now, Congress is debating that trust fund - a fund that supports our nation's roads and bridges. Every time you buy gas, 18.4 cents goes into the fund, but revenues are woefully short.

The omnibus surface transportation bill - the Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century, known as TEA-21 - expired almost two years ago. Ever since, Congress has been slogging its way, unsuccessfully to date, toward a new bill. Because it couldn't agree on a bill last session, Congress has passed a series (six at last count) of short, stopgap measures.

Transportation funding issues do not go away by putting a Band-Aid over them. With each passing day, they worsen. The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) estimates that $67.5 billion is now wasted in fuel and lost time as Americans spend, on average, one and a half workweeks sitting in traffic per year.


While Washington twiddles and fiddles, our highway infrastructure, like London Bridge of old, is falling down. Over 25 percent of the bridges in the nation are now "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete."

According to the the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), "More than half of America's roadways (59 percent) are in poor, mediocre, or fair condition." Moreover, FHA reports, "Substandard road and bridge design, pavement conditions, and outdated safety features are a factor in 30 percent of all fatal highway accidents." Those accidents cost more than 12,000 lives per year.

It's critical for this Congress to come to grips and address the issue within the next 60 days. What exactly is at stake? In a nutshell, our roads are deteriorating and that affects nothing less than highway safety, economic vitality and public mobility.

Safety: Things as seemingly mundane as inadequate highway shoulders or the lack of proper reflective markers too often result in needless highway deaths and injuries.

Economic Vitality: Our highways are clogged. At the beginning of this decade, annual travel on the nation's highways reached an estimated 2.7 trillion vehicle-miles per year. That's four times the level in 1960. In short, if our highway network is inadequate and ill-maintained, our competitive edge and economic position weakens and jobs are lost.

Mobility: Key to the American lifestyle is our freedom to move - and our ease to do so - for work, shopping or leisure. Insufficient capacity and deteriorating highways beget deteriorating mobility.

We have not built the infrastructure needed to keep pace with population growth, the number of vehicles, nor miles traveled during daily commutes. In 2002, the U.S. had 8.3 million highway lane miles compared to 7.9 million in 1960, a highway capacity increase of barely 5 percent.

During the same period, population grew 24 percent, while vehicle miles traveled increased 80 percent. Is there any wonder then, why we have congestion today on our roads?

In 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a reauthorization bill and the Senate passed its own version.

Then they deadlocked - unable to compromise. And, as every homeowner knows, defer needed maintenance and you will spend more next year than if you get the job done this year. In this context, time truly is money and continued delay in Congress is costing money - your money.

You would think our country - the richest in the world - would fairly allocate appropriate resources to improve not only the quality of our highway system, but also recognize the absolute necessity to expand the system to accommodate both past and future growth. Instead, we are now fighting for sufficient funding just to halt the rate of deterioration.

AAA Mid-Atlantic urges Congress to address such disparities and enact a forward-looking funding bill now. Specifically, AAA Mid-Atlantic believes the legislation should:

· Assure that all federal transportation revenues are used solely for transportation purposes.

· Establish adequate funding for highway safety programs.

· Provide an incentive to states to have a "constitutionally protected" transportation trust fund that eliminates any possibility of diverting transportation monies for nontransportation purposes (i.e., adopt state constitutional amendments as many already have.)

· Prohibit states from repeatedly "flexing" monies designated for highway capital projects to offset repetitive transit operating cost shortfalls.

· Provide for comprehensive studies of alternative highway financing approaches and privatization of transit system operations.

· Ban new tolling of existing roads and bridges.

On behalf of all motorists, we urge our local congressional representatives and senators to take swift action. We encourage all concerned individuals to do the same.

Ronald W. Kosh is vice president of AAA Mid-Atlantic public and government relations.

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