While the US Congress is mired in a bloody fight, over the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” signed into law in 2010, which threatens to shut down the US government tomorrow, many significant, critical, long-standing fiscal issues have been left languishing, with little or no effort by Congress to address them.
Congress used to be able to get its work done, often in a timely manner. It used to be able to multitask, an essential ability for governments with so many issues needing attention, and solutions. Today, Congress is paralyzed, unable to resolve even simple straightforward matters.
Adequate funding of the United States Highway Trust Fund is one of those critical issues which needs Congress’ immediate consideration and deliberation.
The US pays for most of its highway maintenance and building costs via the US Highway Trust Fund, which also funds mass transit and the small “Leaking Underground Storage Tank” program.
Today, the US Highway Trust Fund is going broke.
The automobile “Road Trip” got its start in the US in the early 1900s, as new highways began to cross its landscape. In 1903, H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker, along with a pit bull named Bud, completed the first known US transcontinental automobile trip, taking 63 days to travel between New York and San Francisco. In 1909, Alice Ramsey, accompanied by two sisters-in-law and a female friend, became the first woman to drive across the US. The others in her group couldn’t drive, so Ramsey drove every mile of the 59-day journey.
Established in 1926, though not completely paved until 1938, “Route 66,” popularized by the 1960′s TV show of the same name, became one of the original highways of the US national highway system. Route 66′s 2,448 miles ran from Chicago, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif. Millions of Americans traveled the famous highway, including this journalist, before it was decommissioned in 1985.
The newer, faster, safer US Interstate Highway System replaced the old highways like Route 66 and dramatically improved and facilitated long distance road trips for countless Americans crisscrossing the nation.
Championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the US Interstate Highway system, authorized by Congress in 1956, was finally completed 35 years later in 1991. Since then, it’s been further expanded and currently includes more than 47,000 miles of limited access, high-speed highway.
With speed limits of 50 to 80 miles per hour, the US Interstate Highway system permits travelers to inexpensively, comfortably and easily tour the country by automobile or bus. It allows travelers to move hundreds of miles per day, stopping at parks, monuments, historic locations, museums, cities, towns and other places of interest. Modern highway travel has substantially helped spawn the country’s huge domestic travel industry, employing millions.
At one time, the US Interstate Highway System was the envy of nations throughout the world, but no more.
The average age of the nation’s 607,000 bridges is 42 years. One in nine bridges, 67,000 of them, are considered structurally deficient. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that to fix those deficient bridges by 2028, the US will need to spend $20.5B annually, far in excess of the $12.8B spent currently. And that’s only for bridges. It doesn’t include the highways themselves.
Unfortunately, mass transit infrastructure needs are also in desperate condition in many parts of the country. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the country’s fourth largest mass transit system, with about a million riders per day, has estimated it needs to spend $65B over the next 10 years to get its infrastructure in order.
Many tourists make their way through the great cities of America via the country’s mass transit agencies on their buses, trolleys, light rail, subways and regional rail.
The problems of the US Highway Trust Fund go back twenty years. The Fund obtains its financing from the federal gas tax, at a rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, and a similar tax on diesel fuel, set in 1993. Since then, inflation has risen steeply, causing highway construction costs to dramatically rise. Vehicle fuel efficiency has increased substantially, reducing the nation’s purchase of fuel. This combination has been financially deadly for the US Highway Trust Fund.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Fund will be broke by fiscal year 2014. The Fund has been running deficits for years, but rather than a long term solution to finance the Highway Trust Fund, Congress has merely transferred cash from other government spending needs to the Fund, to the tune of $41B over the last five years.
With the “sequester,” current cash transfers to the Fund are unlikely to continue, and even that amount is far short of satisfying the Fund’s needs to repair and replace today’s deficient infrastructure, threatening the safety of our highways and mass transit, and the employment of millions in the US travel industry and other industries.
The US needs Congress to get back to work, stop its bickering, and its threats to both shut down the government and refuse to pay its obligations. Shuttering the government, and especially defaulting on its obligations, even temporarily, could be catastrophic.
The US needs Congress’ members to not just talk to each other, not just negotiate with each other, but put the country first and be open to any and all approaches to find real solutions to the nation’s problems and adopt those solutions.
One problem which should be at the top of Congress’ list is to finally tackle and solve the nation’s transportation funding needs.