’Tis the Season to Look Closely at Transportation

Posted February 25, 2005 at 2:41pm

When you live in Vermont, you must endure a long, hard winter. To keep spirits up, a Vermonter will look for signs of spring, sometimes in the most unlikely places. One leading indicator of brighter days ahead is a phenomenon known as the frost heave. As temperatures rise, highways begin to buckle, producing humps in the road that rattle your teeth and mangle your shocks. Highway workers post bright orange signs to warn drivers of upcoming frost heaves. To a Vermonter, these signs are like the first flowers in bloom.

As the seasonal change unfolds, the frost heaves recede and the paved roads return to their more normal state. Unfortunately, that is often a state of disrepair. Bridges share this sorry condition, due to effects of weather, wear and tear. The cure is major maintenance, reconstruction or replacement. But that costs money. A lot of money.

I have a keen interest in this subject. I am the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. EPW has jurisdiction over the nation’s highway program, and I have been working for more than three years to reauthorize the program. The challenge has been funding — not enough money to get the job done.

This year, when I opened the president’s budget, I was reminded of the lowly frost heave. While overall it rattled my teeth, the funding proposed for the highway program gave off a glimmer of hope, a sign of possibly brighter days ahead.

It’s not that the president is proposing to fully fund the program — far from it. He suggested a funding level overall for surface transportation of $284 billion over six years. His own Transportation Department says we need at least $300 billion to simply maintain the status quo, and something well above that level to make progress on conditions and performance.

Hope arises from the fact that in this year, the administration’s budget is an improvement over last year’s paltry $256 billion White House proposal. In the 108th Congress, the administration threatened to veto highway bills passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate. It said the bills were too expensive and relied on funding gimmicks. This time, the president’s number is up and includes mechanisms the administration criticized in the past.

It is important for this Congress to authorize a long-term highway program. I will work diligently toward that end. Our transportation challenges are many.

Safety is my highest priority. Last year, Vermont experienced the highest number of fatalities on its highways since 1998. Ninety-seven people died in automobile crashes, up from 69 in 2003.

Nationally, we have made real progress on highway safety in the past 10 years. According to the Transportation Department, the rate of fatalities has declined from 1.9 to 1.5 deaths per million vehicle miles traveled. But the number of fatalities has held steady at roughly 42,000 per year. That number is unacceptable.

Congestion in this country is bad and getting worse. Congestion costs Americans more than $69.5 billion annually in lost time and productivity. And 5.7 billion gallons of fuel are wasted each year while motorists sit in traffic.

The condition of our nation’s highways and bridges has improved somewhat in the past 10 years. To continue this positive trend, we must increase our investment in system preservation.

One way to reduce congestion is to move goods by freight, and we are moving more freight in this country than ever before. The forecast for future demand is daunting, with the Transportation Department projecting that the volume of freight will increase 70 percent by 2020. I want to see our nation expand freight capacity through new partnerships, investments and market financing techniques.

The highway program expired nearly two years ago, and the states have been operating under a series of short-term extensions. This has disrupted construction programs, delayed safety improvements and interrupted funding to transit operators.

So, like a frost heave, in Vermont a welcome sign of spring, I take the president’s new funding number to be a hopeful sign. Congress must now act to reauthorize the highway program.

By the way, the next sign of spring in Vermont after the frost heave is something known as mud season. You can tell from the name that it’s not a lot of fun. Moving a highway bill in the next few months will feel at times like mud season. But at the other end, a brighter day.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) is ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee.