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Reports from AASHTO and U.S. PIRG highlight an unsustainable transportation status quo

Two reports out this week speak, in quite different ways, to the urgent need for a fresh approach to federal transportation policy.

In “Road Work Ahead”, U.S. PIRG sounds the alarm on the escalating deterioration of America’s infrastructure and the need to get serious about repair and restoration. The “Unlocking Gridlock” report from AASHTO, the trade association of state Departments of Transportation, emphasizes the problem of congestion in our increasingly urbanized nation, offering highway expansion as the solution.

The subtext of the PIRG report is that expanding highway capacity – whether by widening or building new roads — is generally a bad idea, because it comes at too high a cost: Deferred maintenance on existing roads and bridges, perpetuation of over-reliance on cars with an associated dependency on oil and other problems.

For AASHTO, congestion comes at too high a cost, and the report marshals a compelling case that people should have a way to avoid those costs. However, the report comes up short in two respects: It does not adequately explain how we built a system that functions so poorly for many commuters, and it offers only one solution — more of the same.

We believe strongly, and our polling shows most Americans agree, that maintaining existing roads and bridges in top condition is our first priority. This doesn’t mean we think highway expansion is over for good. But it cannot continue to be the default solution, simply because it is the only tool that current federal policy supplies to the entities that get most of the money – the state DOTs.

The real crux of the two reports is that we have a national policy that is decades behind the reality of this century: Whether in states with low or high population, Americans are concentrating more and more in urban areas, both large and small. Yet our national policy seems almost to be designed to thwart urban mobility. Roads and bridges in our towns and metro areas take the worst pounding, and are most in need of repair and maintenance, but don’t get the resources they need. Metros plagued by congestion need a full array of tools: fixes to bottleneck-creating highway designs, rail and busways, congestion-management technology and planning and land-use approaches that minimize impact on highways and maximize transit investments.

But as we said before, the DOTs have one tool: bigger highways. You know the old saw: When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The figures are startling and compelling. By AASHTO’s estimates, poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, which comes out to an average of $335 per motorist. According to the USDOT, 12 percent of America’s bridges are “structurally deficient,” and in some states that figure is higher than 20 percent. Among federal highways, 45 percent are in poor, mediocre of fair condition.

The traffic gridlock resulting from inadequate transportation options has hindered quality of life and slowed the economy, as AASHTO has pointed out. Drivers with a 30-minute commute lose 22 hours (roughly three full work days) sitting in traffic, and travel on U.S. highways has increased five-fold over the past several decades. Expanding capacity in a smart and targeted way has been and will continue to be a part of the solution.

Our continued challenge will be to draw from every tool we have to make our transportation system smarter, safer and more sustainable. Although PIRG and AASHTO come at transportation issues from a different perspective, both agree that the status quo is unsustainable, and our team at Transportation for America couldn’t agree more. We look forward to working with AASHTO, PIRG and all interested groups toward a reauthorization bill that increases affordable and efficient transportation options, creates benchmarks to ensure accountability for taxpayer dollars and makes our roads safer and less congested. Only with an “all of the above” approach that says yes to safer highways, yes to transportation choices and yes to accountability can we truly say our system has met 21st Century needs.

No Comments

  1. avelino lobo

    14 years ago

    Hi alll,
    Yet our national policy seems almost to be designed to thwart urban mobility.
    Rally Sports