- - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let’s face it: Infrastructure isn’t sexy. It’s often overlooked and underappreciated until something crumbles. But in the small towns and tribal communities of rural Arizona, our daily lives won’t let us forget the importance of infrastructure. It’s at the core of our struggle for decent roads, better broadband access, and reliable water and energy supplies.

I represent Arizona’s Congressional District One — a large, mostly rural district with more than 80 communities and 12 Native American tribes. Some of these folks drive for hours just to go to work or school. They are the reason I want to ensure the Highway Trust Fund stays strong now and in the future.

Earlier this month, the House approved a plan to shore up the fund, which is quickly approaching insolvency. The Senate is also considering proposals, and both chambers need to move swiftly to resolve this issue before the August district work period. Summer is high season for road construction, with hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure projects already underway.

At the national level, infrastructure investments not only improve our safety and mobility, they boost our economy. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates that 28,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion of federal highway spending.

At the local level, those investments help our small towns build a foundation for the future. With good-paying jobs, families have a reason to stay. They can choose to live, work and raise their kids in these wonderful communities.

Nearly all of the funding for our highways and public transportation is drawn from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which reimburses state governments for work on authorized projects. In fiscal year 2014, Arizona’s total funding was more than $700 million.

But because the main source of the fund’s revenue is drawn from fuel taxes, which have not been increased at the federal level since 1993, the fuel taxes no longer raise enough to support infrastructure projects that have been authorized across the country.

There are many reasons for the shortfall: Americans are driving fewer miles and using more mass transit. And our fuel-efficiency standards and increased production of hybrid and electric vehicles have cut the amount of gas needed.

But unless Congress brokers a fix before August, the trust fund will no longer be able to pay states in full for authorized projects, and a 28 percent cut in transportation funding will kick in.

Arizona simply can’t afford that kind of cut. The Trust Fund pays for about 75 percent of our road projects. Seven percent of Arizona’s roads are in poor condition, 12 percent of our bridges are rated as structurally deficient or obsolete, and 41 percent of our state’s major highways are congested. Nationally, poor road conditions cost motorists $1.2 billion every year or about $247 per motorist in extra maintenance and repair costs.

But poor road conditions don’t just cost us money. They take a toll in lives. Road condition is a critical factor in one-third of traffic fatalities, and our state’s fatality rate of 1.37 per 100 million vehicle miles is higher than the national average of 1.13 per 100 million miles. On Arizona’s rural roads, the fatality rate is even higher at 2.66 fatalities per 100 million miles, more than double the national rate.

And the lack of infrastructure costs us future growth. A strong transportation infrastructure is the top-ranking factor for locating industrial development. A study conducted by the Arizona Multimodal Freight Analysis identified traffic congestion, lack of adequate highway infrastructure and the lack of a cost effective rail shipping option as weak links in Arizona’s transportation system.

If these weak links are eliminated, the job creation builds on itself. Transportation and logistics industries are top creators of what’s known as ancillary job development. For example, one truck transportation job creates 2.2 other jobs, one rail transportation job creates 3.14 others, and one air transportation job creates 3.61 others.

The FHA also estimates that every dollar spent on bridge, highway, and road improvements creates an average benefit of $5.20 in the form of reduced vehicle maintenance costs, reduced delays, reduced fuel consumption, improved safety, reduced road and bridge maintenance costs, and reduced emissions.

MAP-21, the most recent authorization for highway and transit programs, made up most of the difference between motor fuel tax revenue and spending authorization by transferring money from the U.S. Treasury’s general fund to the trust fund. But MAP-21 expires on Sept. 30.

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