Bump, jolt: nation’s highways grow worse as funds dry up

Awful. Horrible. Disgraceful. Those are only a few of the terms used to describe the deplorable state of today’s highways. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better — if it gets better.

If you travel with any frequency outside your hometown and immediate area, you know too well the execrable condition of roads and bridges: potholes galore, patches on top of patches, and constant jolting from bucked-up expansion joints. Resurfacing, if any, is piecemeal. Reconstruction: well, forget that. Often as not, major interstate highways are among the worst.

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Talk with DOT people in any state and they tell the same story: fewer dollars for road/bridge construction and maintenance from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which has been teetering on bankruptcy; and fewer dollars from federal/state gasoline taxes because of (1) a continuing drop in the increase of yearly vehicle miles being driven, (2) a dramatic increase in the fuel efficiency of today’s cars and trucks, (3) state gasoline taxes that, in most cases, have changed little or none in a decade or more, and (4), skyrocketing costs of new road construction and materials/labor for maintenance of existing roads/bridges.

In a nutshell, the need is constantly going up and the funding to meet those needs is increasingly inadequate, all made worse by years of only stopgap measures in dealing with a crumbling infrastructure.

Infrastructure grade D+

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ latest four-year analysis of the nation’s infrastructure, issued in 2013, gives it an overall grade of D+. For roads, the grade was D, for bridges C+. “America’s surface transportation infrastructure is about to go over a financial cliff,” the report warned. The estimated cost to get a grip on things: over $3.5 trillion by 2020 (or about the projected long-term cost of our involvement in Iraq).

The Highway Trust Fund, expected to run dry in August, was voted a 10-month $10 billion temporary patch by the U.S. House, and in late July the Senate approved extending funding through May 2015. But still, no resolution of the overall problem.

Proposed remedies are many: boosting the gas tax and/or indexing it to inflation; taxing vehicles on the number of miles driven per year (raising privacy concerns about the monitoring devices required); converting the nation’s interstate system to toll roads (which would increase pressures on non-interstate routes), etc.

The likelihood that anything remotely constructive will be done, given upcoming mid-term elections and a presidential election beyond that? Slim to none. Just more “kick the can down the road” and let someone else deal with it.

And we all will continue bumping and jolting on roads that get worse and worse.

TAGS: Agenda
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