- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Held hostage on the highways, the average driver in Washington spends a record 60 hours a year sitting in maddening traffic jams. But the roads are choking everywhere. The average driver in America now spends an average of 38 hours stuck in delays.

Traffic congestion causes a staggering $78 billion annual drain on the U.S. economy, in the form of 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel — that’s 105 million weeks of vacation and 58 fully-loaded supertankers, according to the Texas Transportation Institute “Urban Mobility Report” released last month.

For some commuters in Washington, it is not uncommon to endure a brutal two-hour commute each way. But, the study found even drivers in smaller cities now cope with aggravating traffic back-ups.

Peak-time delays have nearly tripled since 1982, and that doesn’t begin to count the cost of delays for businesses. A look at just one sliver of the business community — the trucking industry — reveals the scope of the problem.

The Federal Highway Administration says America is in the early stages of a “freight bottleneck” capacity crisis. The agency reports more than 200 freight bottlenecks cost the trucking industry $8 billion in economic losses annually and 243 million hours of delay each year. Unsurprisingly, the problem is more acute in port cities.

Congestion and delays disrupt the just-in-time logistics adopted by U.S. manufacturing and distribution firms in recent years. The challenge becomes greater with truck traffic expected to double in the next 25 years.

Why we have such congestion is no mystery. Since 1982, the U.S. population has grown nearly 30 percent and auto and truck traffic has almost doubled while new highway capacity has grown just 6.6 percent. Even less capacity has been added for public transit.

Ultimately, traffic gridlock threatens the nation’s economic competitiveness, as it takes longer and longer to get goods delivered. But while America is idling, many of our global competitors race ahead. When it comes to transportation improvements, China, India and the European Union are “eating America’s lunch.” By 2020, China will build 42,000 miles of interstate quality highways and India will build 25,000 miles. And the European Unions plans more than 10,000 new miles of road and rail capacity. Where is the U.S. transportation plan?

More than 50 years ago, President Eisenhower led the way in creating the Interstate Highway System, which unified the nation and served as a boon to prosperity and the American desire for freedom of mobility.

Today, on the verge of becoming a gridlocked nation, America faces a challenge that demands a similarly bold imagination and a willingness to invest in the nation’s transportation system.

The need is dire. Federal, state and local budgets are coming up $45 billion short annually on what are the necessary investments just to maintain current highway conditions. The August bridge collapse in Minnesota is a metaphor for our nation’s infrastructure vulnerability.

Congress will begin holding hearings next year in preparation for the next six-year highway-transit investment bill, which is due in 2009. This is a special opportunity to put forward a new vision and approach for America’s transportation network.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association has an innovative, two-part plan to restructure the federal highway program and make it more accountable.

First, it is imperative to protect and preserve the nation’s existing infrastructure, especially Interstate highways and public transportation facilities. This is a fundamental government responsibility. Investments now are necessary to shore up an ailing road and transit network. This can and should be improved by raising the federal gas tax, which has not been increased in nearly 15 years. Tolling, public-private partnerships, and other user fees are also part of the solution.

Second, to prepare for the “tsunami of freight” expected to flood our highways and ports, America needs a 25-year, federally-led initiative — “Critical Commerce Corridors” (3C) — to provide new capacity to facilitate safe and efficient movement of freight.

Such a system would help lower transportation and energy costs and reduce emissions even further. It would include truck-only lanes to separate commercial vehicles from cars and improve highway safety. The additional capacity could also be used to evacuate the public during national emergencies or natural disasters. The “3C” initiative would be financed with dedicated and protected user fees levied on freight shipments.

Plenty of issues still need to be resolved, but national challenges require national solutions. It’s time for policymakers to roll up their sleeves and get the job done. It will require political will and a “can-do” attitude from the federal government, working in partnership with state governments and the business community.

Doing nothing to address the transportation challenges at hand would be the costliest approach of all. The status quo is no solution.

America’s businesses and motorists need to get moving, and moving more quickly in a 21st century global economy. The nation has been stuck in traffic far too long.

Pete Ruane is president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.


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