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Patching Pot-Holes Won't Cut It: How to Rebuild America

Rob Perks

Posted April 23, 2012 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil

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“We’re trying to run a 2012 transportation system on 1992 revenue. It’s a bad mismatch.”  -- Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic

That rather telling quote appeared in a recent newspaper story about the push to add tolls to more of America's roadways. Obviously, at a time when drivers are feeling more pain at the pump, the last thing they want is to pay higher gasoline taxes or new fees from tolls. Most politicians agree, but many transportation experts and officials understand that if Americans want to drive on good roads, they’re going to have to pay more for them -- or do without.

And we have a lot of roads in dire need of repair. Roughly 46,000 miles of federal interstate highways, to be exact, most of which are approaching 60 years of age. That's a lot of pavement reaching the end of its life span, not to mention roads and bridges that need to be modernized for safety and expanded to meet capacity. (The same is true for our extensive rail system too.) A 2009 report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials recommended an annual investment in U.S. highways and bridges of $166 billion.

As noted in that recent article:

"When the interstate system was created in 1956, a federal per-gallon gasoline tax was enacted to provide a stream of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund. The federal government paid 90 percent of the construction costs, with the states making up the rest.

"That model worked for decades, but no longer. Americans are driving less because of the economy and higher gas prices, and cars are getting better gas mileage. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t changed since 1993. In recent years, the trust fund has required an annual infusion of general funds just to keep highway spending levels where they are. The Congressional Budget Office said in January that the trust fund might go bankrupt next year.

"But increasing the tax even to adjust for inflation is a tough sell. The cost of gasoline has come up as an issue in the current and past presidential elections, with Democrats and Republicans blaming high prices on whoever’s in the White House...Stalled legislation in Congress to fund transportation projects for the next two to five years doesn’t even begin to fix the problem. No current bill, experts warn, adequately addresses the needs of an outdated and deteriorating national highway system."

Most Americans understand the importance of a modern, well-maintained transportation system even if they don't fully comprehend the massive costs required to make that happen. People want better roads, they want public transportation, they want to ease traffic congestion. But if they're not willing to pay the price, it all falls apart. For the most part our politicians lack the political will to face up to the crisis. Sure, the federal budget crunch is bad, but states are feeling the funding pinch even more.

Like it or not, there is a clear solution: Public investment in transportation infrastructure.

As the title of a new report put its -- public infrastructure investment is "The Next 'New Thing' to Power Economic Growth". This new study by the Economic Policy Institute is the latest in a series of reports on the economic benefits of investment in public infrastructure. However this report goes beyond other reports by attempting too quantify both (1) GDP growth in response to such investments, and (2) public net costs based on  productivity improvements from such investment. The findings are quite compelling.

As stated in the report, here is the meat of the matter (my emphasis added):

"Public investment by federal, state, and local governments builds the nation’s capital stock by devoting resources to the basic physical infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, rail lines, airports, and water distribution), innovative activity (basic research), green investments (clean power sources and weatherization), and education (both primary and advanced, as well as job training) that leads to higher productivity and/or higher living standards. While private actors also invest in these areas, they do so to a much smaller degree, in part because the gains from public investment accrue not just to those undertaking the investment, but to a wide range of people and businesses."

The report points out how such investment promises both a near-term and long-term boost to the job market -- "based on research showing that infrastructure investment is about the most efficient fiscal support one can provide to a depressed economy."

This is especially true given that over the last decade, private investment has been fading. Therefore, "returning to the productivity growth we enjoyed in the post-World War II era and again in the late 1990s requires a substantial increase in public investments," the report states.

There's a lot of great data in this report -- backed by detailed charts and graphs -- laying out the case for public investment. (Moreover, public investment produces benefits that CANNOT be measured, such as cleaner air and safer water.) Certainly, this in-depth analysis demonstrates why investing tax dollars in our nation's transportation system will reap economic dividends for us all.

So, public investment in infrastructure -- NOW -- is the way for America to build our way to a brighter future by rebuilding roads, bridges and public transit.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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