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U.S. highway system badly in need of repair

The U.S. highway system is broken. And it’s not at all clear where the money is going to come from to fix it. Federal and state funding is failing to keep up with the need to maintain existing infrastructure and increase capacity. And the cash shortfall is only going to get worse. By's John W. Schoen.
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The U.S. highway system is broken. And it’s not clear where the money is going to come from to fix it.

Amid a steady rise in congestion and ongoing deterioration of decades-old roads and bridges, federal and state funding is failing to keep up with the need to maintain existing infrastructure and increase capacity. And the cash shortfall is only going to get worse, with the Federal Highway Trust Fund — supported by a tax on gasoline — projected to run dry in 2009.

Part of the problem stems from the increase in traffic borne by a national highway system that is 50 years old in places. In 1955, the system carried 65 million cars and trucks. Today, that number has nearly quadrupled to 246 million, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

That added stress is taking a toll — in both increased congestion and deterioration of roads and bridges. The list of projects in need of repair is extensive, according to TRIP, a national transportation research group:

  • 33 percent of the nation's major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.”
  • 36 percent of major urban highways are congested.
  • 26 percent of bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”

Over 2,000 bridges on the interstate highway system are in need of an overhaul, according to Frank Moretti, TRIP's director of research.

It's not clear just how many of those bridges are unsafe. According to the Federal Highway Administration, most bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory — 83 percent — are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.

The Department of Transportation’s inspector general last year criticized the Highway Administration’s oversight of interstate bridges, saying that flawed calculations of weight limits could pose safety hazards. The Highway Administration agreed its oversight of state bridge inspections needed to be improved.

Several governors on Wednesday ordered state transportation officials to inspect particular bridges or review their inspection procedures.

It's also not clear just how much all this repair will cost, but some estimates put the price tag in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“If you do not take care of what is needed to maintain the condition and performance of an asset, you start creating a backlog of maintenance and capital improvement that needs to be met,” said Janet Kavinoky, a transportation lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We are amassing — and have amassed — a huge backlog when it comes to our infrastructure.”

One reason for the backlog is that funding for highway repair and improvements hasn’t kept up with rising construction and maintenance costs, which have far outstripped the overall inflation rate. The biggest reason: strong global demand for building materials like steel and concrete have pushed up prices of those raw materials. Higher oil prices have raised the cost of asphalt and the diesel fuel need to power road-building equipment.

Meanwhile, funding for improvements and maintenance continues to fall short. When Congress last passed a major highway funding bill in 2005, the Federal Highway Administration estimated it needed $375 billion to fund repair and improvement projects, but the final bill authorized just $286 billion.

On Thursday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said that the nation’s transportation infrastructure has been underfunded for years and that the Bush administration has threatened to veto proposals to increase funding.

“We want to get the bills done and want to get them increased at a sufficient amount,” he said. “We spend over $3 billion a week on the war. So there is a lot of money that is being spent in other places that we have to recover and put into our highways. Because we face immediate danger in lots of places, and the public deserves better than that.”

Congressional leaders say the number of bridges in need of repair is too high and the funding too low.

"There is crumbling infrastructure all over the country," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the Senate panel that controls transportation spending, said the Bush administration has threatened vetoes when Democrats try to increase such spending.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel declined to address spending and accused the Democrats of using the Minneapolis bridge collapse for partisan purposes.

Apart from the threat to public safety, crumbling roadways and bridges are taking a toll on the nation's economy. About three-quarters of the $8.4 trillion worth of commodities delivered each year nationwide is carried by trucks; delays in that supply chain reduce the productivity of American businesses. At the same time motorists spend 3.7 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost of $63 billion in wasted time and fuel costs, according to TRIP.

Funding for road building and repair is also being squeezed by the shrinking Highway Trust Fund, which gets most of its revenues from a federal tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. When first established in 1956, the 3-cent-a-gallon tax represented about 10 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

The current tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993, is 18.4 cents a gallon, about 6 percent of the pump price. Two years ago, Congress proposed raising the tax by 4 cents a gallon, but the measure died when the White House threatened to veto any highway spending bill that included a tax increase.

As recently as 2000, the highway trust fund had a balance of nearly $23 billion. By last year, that had shrunk to $6 billion. By 2009, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the fund will come up short by $1.7 billion, and the deficit will rise to $8.1 billion by 2010.

Funding at the state level also has failed to keep up with the increased cost of repair and new construction. Though federal highways are financed in large part by the federal government, additional funding comes from state and local governments. Traditionally, state governments have raised those funds with “user fees” such as auto registration fees and state gasoline taxes, according to Moretti of TRIP.

“In the last decade those increases dramatically decreased,” he said. “Many legislators decided to oppose any increase in taxation, and they lumped user fees in with general taxes.”

Since most state gasoline taxes are levied based on volume, not price, revenues have not increased even as the price of gasoline has risen sharply. As high pump prices promote conservation, lower sales volumes of gasoline mean even less money to support road repair.

With public funds drying up, some states have turned to private investors to maintain existing highways and build new ones. Faced with a $1.8 billion shortfall for road improvements, Indiana last year signed a $3.85 billion, 75-year lease with private investors to maintain the state turnpike and collect tolls. Two years ago, the city of Chicago signed a $1.83 billion lease to privatize its Skyway commuter bridge. In New Jersey, lawmakers are debating a proposal to sell a 49 percent stake in the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.

Critics of these deals say they’ve been overly generous to the for-profit companies involved. In April, the Texas Legislature passed a two-year moratorium on privatizing roads in response to public criticism of the deals.

In any case, privatization can only work for the relatively few, high-traffic projects that can turn a profit.

“It’s not the answer for connecting Wyoming with Chicago and funding a nationwide network,” said Kavinoky of the Chamber of Commerce. “Privatization is project financing. It’s not systemic funding.”