Transportation System Needs Help

Posted February 20, 2004 at 10:26am

“Good roads cost money. Poor roads cost more.” Those eight words capture the simple truth facing Congress and the Bush administration as we debate the future of America’s highway, bridge and transit programs for the remainder of this decade.

Transportation is critical to our economy and our way of life. Most of the time, we take it for granted. But the simple fact is that our systems wear down over time and need to be rehabilitated, expanded and improved to meet the demands of a growing economy and population.

Unfortunately, in past years we have not kept up with the repair and upgrading of our infrastructure needs. Today, we see crumbling roads, deficient bridges and growing evidence of unsafe conditions and serious traffic congestion caused by aging facilities and inadequate capacity. The Senate’s Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act will provide the funding to help reverse that trend.

The Senate’s highway bill, S. 1072 (better known as SAFETEA), builds upon previous reauthorizations, including the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which is scheduled to expire at the end of February.

SAFETEA authorizes a total of $318 billion for federal surface transportation programs, with $294 billion in guaranteed highway and transit investment over the next six years. It maintains TEA-21’s budgetary protections by ensuring that all federal highway trust fund revenues would be spent on transportation and not diverted to other programs, fully embracing this principle as a fundamental tenet of wise transportation policy. It will also substantially increase the minimum guaranteed return each state will get back from its contribution to the HTF, raising it from 90.5 percent to 95 percent by 2009.

SAFETEA does not raise the federal gasoline tax, contain bonding provisions or increase the federal deficit even one penny. It would, however, provide a much-needed boost in investment to help improve our nation’s ailing transportation infrastructure.

SAFETEA would stimulate the American economy by generating nearly $100 billion more in output of goods and services in the U.S. economy over the next six years as measured by the nation’s gross domestic product. It would generate about $45 billion more in federal revenues over the next six years. This would include about $10 billion more gas tax revenues, which go into the highway trust fund, as improved economic conditions result in more travel and freight shipments. The remaining revenues include income and Social Security tax revenues generated by the stronger economy. SAFETEA would also add nearly $40 billion in tax revenues for state and local governments due to enhanced economic activity.

SAFETEA will support more than 2.7 million jobs by 2009 by putting people to work. This will rebuild and improve our nation’s most important highway and transportation infrastructure — the very roads, bridges, tunnels and transit systems that keep our country moving. But even more importantly, by maintaining and enhancing our vital surface transportation network, SAFETEA will facilitate the kind of safe, efficient movement of people and goods that will be essential for future economic growth, job creation, prosperity and international competitiveness.

SAFETEA will also elevate safety to a core program by highlighting the need to address the nearly 43,000 lives lost on our nation’s roadways in 2003. According to the Department of Transportation, that number is expected to grow to nearly 52,000 by 2009 unless action is taken.

These numbers are staggering and unacceptable in their own right, but when one considers that nearly one-third of these accidents are caused by inadequate infrastructure, the loss of life and number of injuries is even more difficult to accept. The cost in terms of medical expenses, lost work, travel delays and legal and insurance expenses from these deaths and injuries is estimated to be $230 billion per year or roughly $820 per person annually.

SAFETEA tackles the ever-growing problem of traffic congestion. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, traffic congestion is retarding business productivity and the American economy to the tune of $70 billion each year. The average highway traveler now spends 62 hours a year sitting in traffic. People are traveling farther and for longer periods of time than even just a few years ago, and our nation’s highways have not been able to keep pace with the surging usage and demand. SAFETEA will help provide relief from traffic congestion that is robbing time from families and negatively impacting our quality of life.

Some have raised questions about whether this Congress can afford to invest at the levels proposed by SAFETEA. While the federal deficit should be addressed, it must be done in a fiscally responsible manner and not by ignoring current problems that impose real-world costs on our society. As a result of failing to maintain the nation’s transportation infrastructure network, we are now facing a $230 billion traffic safety deficit, a $70 billion traffic congestion deficit and a job creation deficit that could be mitigated by the 2.7 million jobs SAFETEA would support.

Opposing SAFETEA under the pretext of deficit reduction without recognizing the full context of the debate, and the costs of our failure to act, is not a fiscally responsible approach, but rather borders on fiscal irresponsibility.

SAFETEA embraces a forward-looking, visionary approach to addressing our current and future transportation needs. It is time for Congress to pass the measure. The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of the bill. By investing the resources needed and by advancing the kind of policies and programs that are designed to improve mobility, reduce congestion, enhance safety and stimulate the economy, we will make a real difference for America, today and tomorrow.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) is chairman of the Environment and Public Works subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure.