In my previous post, I talked about the potential for conflict between backers of high-speed trains for passengers and the needs of U.S. freight haulers. But that's just one of several battles that are shaping up, in efforts to revamp the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure.
You can't get far down the road to success without addressing a basic question: should those billions of dollars in stimulus funds for transportation be spent mostly on new construction, or on repair and maintenance of the existing network? Phineas Baxandall argues strongly for the latter approach. He is senior analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a federation of state PIRGs which purports to speak for "ordinary citizens." In partnership with the Frontier Group, U.S. PIRG recently issued a report on the state of America's roads and bridges.
The picture isn't a pretty one. It cites Federal Highway Administration figures that 45 percent of federal highways and major roads were in "poor, mediocre or fair" condition in 2008. Other distressing facts: the U.S. Department of Transportation says that 12 percent of the nation's bridges are "structurally deficient." And motorists are paying $67bn year in repairs and operating costs due to poor road conditions, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Not much controversy there; just about everyone agrees that the system is in dire need. (Doubters are urged to recall the 1-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in August 2007.) But where and how should the money be spent? U.S. PIRG is pushing a "fix it first" approach. Baxandall says lawmakers and "special interests" are dazzled by the hoopla and ribbon-cuttings that accompany new highway and bridge projects. (Not to mention the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs that pour into their communities as a result.) That's how the system has long worked, at least since construction of the U.S. interstate highway system began in the late 1950s. In the 2008 transportation appropriations bill, only 10 percent of earmarked funds was set aside for repair or maintenance or bridges, tunnels or overpasses, U.S. PIRG says.
The group's report calls for much more rigorous evaluation of new highway or bridge projects, with the bulk of the money going to repair of existing infrastructure. The idea doesn't sit well with AASHTO, which insists that the nation needs large amounts of new highway capacity to handle the coming growth in traffic. The American Trucking Associations feels the same way. (Both, I assume, count among the "special interests" targeted by U.S. PIRG.) In response, Baxandall cites a national poll conducted in March on behalf of Transportation for America, in which 84 percent of respondents said that "We cannot afford to build new roads while existing roads are in disrepair."
Things get a bit more complicated here, because both U.S. PIRG and Transportation for America are big advocates of spending more money on public transit - possibly at the expense of projects that will benefit freight. Advocates of that stance have done an excellent job of making themselves heard. Yet another group, Smart Growth America, has argued that transit projects should get more funding because they generate nearly twice as many jobs per dollar than traditional highway spending.
So we're left with a rational argument - let's shore up the existing system before dumping billions into new construction of questionable value - being made by groups who might not be construed as unconditional friends of freight. Baxandall sounds a combative note when he describes the U.S. rail freight industry as "dominated by about five companies, whose main priorities have been to be exempted from antitrust legislation and have subsidies, and [who] often have not been very cooperative about sharing rails with passenger [trains]."
Baxandall supports the notion of shifting more freight from the roads to rail and waterborne carriers, to reduce stress on the nation's highways. But he's also a proponent of passenger-friendly high-speed rail. Looking decades ahead, he says, "it's not clear whether we should have a much expanded highway system, but it seems pretty clear that we're going to want to catch up to the rest of the world and have expanded rail." Whether such a vision will benefit people or freight remains to be seen. But there's only so much money to go around. And the only time that freight seems to capture the public's attention is when there's an overturned big rig blocking the lanes during rush hour.
There is, of course, an even deeper question at hand: How do we pay for any of this? Don't count on the Highway Trust Fund to shell out for major rail improvements. Those 100 members of the House of Representatives who recently urged President Obama to designate a "dedicated revenue source" for high-speed rail were careful not to mention the HTF as a possibility. Doing so would have raised concerns that "high-speed rail, by injecting $50bn of additional unfunded demand into the HTF, might be perceived as taking monies away from existing and future highway and transit projects," says Steve Van Beek, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Transportation Foundation, in a recent Eno brief. He urges transportation interests to seek separate, dedicated funding sources for each mode of transportation, rather than battle over a common pool of funds. Otherwise, he says, members of the transportation community will continue to be pitted against each other in what he calls "an annual funding cage match."
Sounds kind of entertaining, actually, but let's leave the bloodsport to Ultimate Fighting and work toward advancing everyone's interests, public and private, on the transportation front. As Van Beek puts it: "The lack of our collective recognition about multimodal connections is due to the fact that we have all lived in a siloed policy architecture and funding system so long we have lost the ability to see how people and goods move and should move within the system."
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