Highway to Hell: American Infrastructure in Desperate Need of Reform

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The May 12 fatal train derailment in Philadelphia, which took place on the line of track considered to be the crown jewel of the Amtrak system, has put a spotlight on the deplorable conditions of the country’s infrastructure. It left eight dead and 200 injured. The train was traveling at 106 miles per hour at the time of the crash, more than twice the speed limit, according to The New York Times. But investigators say it is still too early to determine whether speed alone cause the wreck or such factors as track conditions, throttle and brake settings, and alarms in the engineer’s cab also played a role. Train derailments have been drastically reduced since the 1980s, largely thanks to technological advancements, and because most trains in the United States carry freight rather than passengers,

Infrastructure in the United States is badly in disrepair, and it has been for some time. America’s Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given the U.S. a D+ grade in terms of its infrastructure condition, with $3.6 trillion worth of repair and restructuring costs needed by 2020. Solid waste infrastructure is the only item to land in the B range, with a B- GPA. Railways, bridges, ports, and public parks come next in the C range, after which point it’s all downhill. Aviation, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, roads, schools, transit, and waste-water are all in the D’s, making the United States a failing nation in regards to its infrastructure.

Of course, last year’s prognosis wasn’t much better, but more concerning is the failure of Washington to meet funding needs for future infrastructure changes. With elections over, it’s possible more attention may now be directed that way. According to the ASCE, certain areas have considerable funding gaps. In particular ground transportation at $846 billion (adjusted for 2010 inflation) has a great distance between estimated available funding and funding needed, and in total the gap for all areas of infrastructure sits at $1,611 billion, or $201 billion a year until 2020.

Compared globally

Looked at internationally, America’s infrastructure takes on a new, grim perspective, according to the 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report. Out of 148 ranked nations worldwide, America falls 19th, just under Belgium, Oman, and Denmark, and well below Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Finland, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and Switzerland.

The Highway Trust Fund

CBS’s Steve Kroft calls roads, bridges, and the other crumbling transportation necessities “just another example of political paralysis,” in a 60 Minutes segment this month. With May coming up, at which point the Highway Trust Fund is set to expire (only renewed for two additional years in 2012), it’s perhaps time for a shot of adrenaline in the catatonic thigh of Congress. The Trust Fund gets most of its funding from a gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon according to Governing.com — but that tax hasn’t been changed or adjusted since 1993, and at this point that constitutes a loss of around 33% since that time, meaning it’s needed aid from Congress for the last six years. According to Governing.com, Tennessee Transportation Secretary John Schroer called the tax system “at best archaic,” and indeed it’s clearly an outdated and ineffective system for helping keep highway repair coffers functional.

For one thing, upping the tax on gas isn’t likely to be a realistic move in the current economy, and it lacks longevity considering the need for sustainable energy sources and design for vehicles. But just because more people will have electric cars in 10 years doesn’t mean they won’t be driving on the same roads, bridges, and highways.

Other solutions out there

“Transportation is only part of the problem,” writes Scott Thomasson, President of NewBuild Strategies LLC, “and the pending bills do not even raise investment in this sector from previous, insufficient levels.” Thomasson notes that despite the gas tax being a difficult-to-fix mess, there are solutions within the scope of what could get bipartisan support and still be effective.

There are no shortage of good proposals to encourage infrastructure investment,” said Thomasson, listing the possibility of a national infrastructure bank, which could give states federal loans to help kick start efforts at a more local level, or work more Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) into the mix. “More states rely on PPPs to share the costs and risks of new projects, and they are finding new sources of non-tax revenues to fund investments, like tolling and higher utility rates,” he said, but criticizes the current tax laws for crushing some of the more clever solutions to funding problems.Partnership to Build America Act

One possible piece of legislation suggested by Rep. John K. Delaney (D-Md.) in an op-ed for the Hill is the Partnership to Build America Act (PBAA). Delaney reports that the Act has 46 Republican co-sponsors and 45 Democratic co-sponsors in both branches of the legislature, calling it “low-hanging fruit on bipartisanship.” Given the difficulty in passing so much vital reform this year, from immigration to tax reform, it would be nice to see some more promising efforts take to the floor.

Even amid the acrimony of the last Congress, I’ve found that there is a deep well of bipartisan support for increasing our investment in infrastructure,” he wrote earlier this month, pointing out that should it be passed it would create a million short term jobs as well. Perhaps his most salient comment though, whether taken in support of the PBAA or not was that “We can’t compete in a global economy with roads, bridges, airports, and ports that were built in the Eisenhower era.”

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