Monday, August 27, 2007

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis early this month sounded alarms about the current state of our nation’s infrastructure, making clear what many in our industry have been saying for years — our nation’s roads and bridges do not take care of themselves and require constant care and investment.

It sounds like the kind of thing we might read about in a developing country. But, as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “Bridges in America should not be falling down.”

This just two years after Congress passed a $286 billion transportation bill — $90 billion short of what many believed was needed to maintain the nation’s aging roads, bridges and transit systems. And money wasn’t the only thing lacking. Also missing was a broad and bold strategic transportation vision for our future.

It has been a half-century since President Dwight Eisenhower led the legislative drive to finance and build the U.S. Interstate Highway System that paved the way for the economic expansion, prosperity and unified country we take for granted today. Without the Interstate network, our modern economy could hardly function — and our mobility, and security, would be seriously compromised.

Much of our highway and transit infrastructure is more than a half-century old. It not only needs fixing but to be upgraded with innovative new materials and construction technologies, and expanded to meet this century’s population and economic and environmental needs.

A Gallup Poll released Aug. 7 found 57 percent of Americans believe the Minneapolis bridge collapse is indicative of serious problems in the nation’s transportation system. 73 percent say they would support Congress spending more than $100 billion rebuilding our bridges.

Recent federal reports indicate 26 percent of the nation’s nearly 600,000 bridges need repair. Traveling across our aging infrastructure are increasing numbers of frustrated commuters, and truckers hauling growing volumes of freight. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute has found traffic gridlock costs the U.S. economy more than $65 billion each year in lost productivity and wasted motor fuel. Gridlock also adds tons of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and makes our goal of energy independence even tougher. There is a greater toll, however, and early this month we bore the greatest of all costs: the loss of human lives.

The Minneapolis event underscores the need for investing in a well-designed and balanced transportation system. We need and deserve a system that not only invests in reconstructing, repairing and maintaining aging highways and transit network but also invests in intelligent transportation systems that facilitate efficient and safe movement of goods and people.

Today’s federal highway program is neither structured nor financed to meet America’s transportation needs for this century. Federal and state budgets are short the billions of dollars required to maintain and improve the infrastructure we have. It is time for a bold, bipartisan plan to change that.

To start, it is essential to close the $20 billion annual federal shortfall in funds needed just to maintain the status quo — protecting past infrastructure investments through existing highway and transit programs. At the top of this list is rehabilitation of the existing Interstate highway and bridge system. This is a fundamental government responsibility. Investments now can help avoid catastrophic bridge and road failures in the future. This can and should be done by increasing the federal gas tax, which is a dedicated user fee.

But we also need a plan to meet future needs. It is time to fast-track a new, long-term strategic capital investment program restructuring the federal transportation program into two parts.

(1) It is important to separate trucks from passenger traffic on the existing Interstate system. This would add capacity and safer and more efficient roads for everyone.

(2) New “Critical Commerce Corridors” must be established across states and across transportation modes, based on a new strategy: creating modern connections of ports, airports, waterways and railways, adding state-of-the-art freight transfer centers and rail hubs.

The “Critical Commerce Corridors” program would dramatically improve economically vital freight movement and help move people during national emergencies and natural disasters.

This initiative would be financed by dedicated freight-related user fees. It could help maintain safety on our nation’s roadways and provide future capacity for a growing nation.

China, India and the European Union — each now fighting tooth and nail to overtake the U.S. as the world’s economic superpower — not only have well-thought out and nationally financed strategic transportation development plans but are aggressively implementing them.

Since the mid-1990s, China has built 25,000 miles of new, multi-lane highways and has announced plans for 52,000 miles of modern expressways by 2020 — more than the 46,000-mile U.S. Interstate system.

The size and scope of our transportation system present real challenges. But we can address them. Today, we are united nationwide as never before. We must build on this legacy.

From the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 to the first astronaut landing on the moon in 1969, we have been inventive and persistent in tackling transportation challenges to serve a growing nation. This century demands a similar commitment to repairing our national infrastructure.

For the sake of safety and global competitiveness, the U.S. must focus on pushing through in 2009 a real 21st-century transportation bill — one that will be the envy of the world, not the bane of millions of American drivers and businesses.

It is time we come together as a nation and make our critical infrastructure a national priority of which we can proud — not just another dent in the armor of a fading 20th century giant.

Peter Ruane is president and chief executive officer of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

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