Stream Fishing

Feb. 1, 2006

With the stroke of a pen in August 2005, President George W. Bush made the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) the federal surface transportation law of the land.

With the stroke of a pen in August 2005, President George W. Bush made the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) the federal surface transportation law of the land.

First, SAFETEA-LU embraces a number of significant policy actions that help lay the foundation for addressing the nation’s highway and transit needs. For example, the funding increases for state transportation programs made possible are largely the result of the forward-looking ethanol tax policy reforms initiated by the Congress and signed by the president in 2004.

Second, the law includes provisions that unquestionably will increase safety in highway construction work zones and help get transportation projects completed sooner, which is important for motorists and businesses.

Perhaps most significantly, Congress has recognized the current revenue stream to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is not sufficient to meet the federal government’s responsibilities in transportation. The bill mandates the creation of two bipartisan commissions to identify the best ways to finance federal transportation investments beyond 2009. The importance of these efforts cannot be overstated if the nation is to meet its transportation obligations.

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) is already working to ensure full implementation of the new law and it will continue to be a major focus in 2006. However, since SAFETEA-LU’s passage was delayed nearly two years, we must be prepared to address these long-term funding issues right away since the next transportation bill is due in less than four years. The interstate’s 50th anniversary provides such a forum.

Golden opportunity

The golden anniversary of the interstate system is more than just a celebration about the past. It provides an excellent opportunity to look forward and begin planning for the future.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data reveal that between 1998 (the most recent year available) and 2020, the value of domestic air freight will increase 300%, highway freight will increase 204%, rail freight will be up 132% and water freight will rise 145%.

Increased demand on our nation’s infrastructure systems will continue to impact road and bridge conditions. The FHWA estimates that nearly 161,500 miles of U.S. interstates, expressways and major roads are in need of resurfacing or reconstruction. That is 17% of all roadway miles eligible for assistance under the federal-aid highway program. And the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges on the interstate system reached 80,560 in 2004, or 14% of all bridges in the country.

The Census Bureau also predicts significant growth in the U.S. population, licensed drivers and vehicle miles traveled over the next 50 years, which only further underscore these challenges.

While some of these transportation-related statistics may be well-known by some in the transportation construction industry, they are finally grabbing the attention of folks outside our industry. Here’s what some of the nation’s business leaders have to say:

“We have not had a comprehensive national policy since President Eisenhower created the national highway system, and that was a 30-year plan. We need another 30-year plan to address our aging infrastructure,” said Pat Quinn, new chairman of the American Trucking Associations.

“Our infrastructure is starting to creak and groan and will give us big problems in the near future,” said Doug Duncan, CEO of FedEx Freight.

Short on cash

The state of America’s infrastructure also is getting the attention of the business community’s principal advocate in Washington, D.C.: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In November 2005, the Chamber’s National Foundation issued a national study, Future Highway & Public Transportation Finance Study, which assessed the nation’s transportation needs and outlined possible financing mechanisms to boost federal investment.

A review of the report makes several things clear.

First, it demonstrates the current HTF revenue stream doesn’t come close to providing the federal resources necessary to maintain current conditions or improve America’s highway and transit systems as documented in federal government and private-sector reports. These annual needs are $23 billion and $48 billion more, respectively, than the expected annual federal HTF revenue of $41 billion. The HTF is facing a “cash crunch.” The Congressional Budget Office projects the balance in the HTF will be as low as $400 million by 2009. Other groups, however, have estimated that the trust fund could have a negative balance by that time.

Second, the Chamber of Commerce report reaffirms the important role of the federal government in transportation financing and policy development. It also highlights the need for a permanent adjustment to the federal motor fuels excise as a user fee and other policy changes to help meet federal obligations for transportation investment over the next 10 years.

Third, it will help jumpstart a broad discussion about the long-term financing of the nation’s federal surface transportation programs.

Given all of these realities, the focus for policy-makers—beginning with the scheduled 2009 reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU—should be a major rebuilding and modernization of existing infrastructure and adding significant capacity across all modes of transportation. The ARTBA SAFETEA-LU Reauthorization Task Force, established in 2005 and charged with developing the association’s “legislative blueprint” for the 2009 bill, will be working this year to develop policy and financing proposals to do just that.

Cost vs. cost

What might the future transportation infrastructure look like? Truck-only lanes should be considered for existing interstate highway right-of-way, where appropriate. New interstates, free-trade corridors, elevated roadways and trains and high-speed rail routes, and tunneling in some urban areas also should be seriously explored as options. Expansion of existing and building new ports, waterways and airport runways also need to be part of the mix. If the government and private sector work together as partners, the possibilities are limitless.

There can be no doubt about it. The costs of improving and modernizing America’s transportation systems will be significant and require a significant boost in federal highway and transit investment. But, the costs of doing nothing for future U.S. economic growth, traffic congestion and air pollution levels and highway safety are far greater.

President Eisenhower embraced a vision in 1956 when he created the Interstate Highway System. One of the best ways to honor and build upon his legacy is for the executive branch, Congress and policy-makers at all levels of government to begin developing a new transportation vision to meet the challenges of the next 50 years. The future is now.

In 2006, as part of the interstate anniversary, ARTBA’s Transportation Development Foundation will be hosting a series of educational programs and events and developing research products designed to focus public attention on the critical role the interstates play in America’s economy, security and quality of life.

The foundation’s program of work will be capped with a gala dinner on June 29 at the Ronald Reagan Building featuring Gen. Colin L. Powell and more than 500 industry professionals, members of Congress and their staff and Bush administration officials. It’s an event that we hope the readers of Roads & Bridges will consider attending. Invitations and sponsorship information can be accessed online at

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