U.S. Markets Grounded in Expanding Transport

Posted June 12, 2008 at 1:54pm

Throughout American history, economic development has always followed the routes established by transportation infrastructure. The wagon trails that traced across the United States in the 19th century not only brought the gold miners to the California coast, but also facilitated the land rush that marked the widespread settlement of our great nation. Less than a hundred years later, the railroad system sparked boomtowns and the fluid transportation from coast to coast that launched the industrial revolution. With the advent of the Interstate Highway System, which connected our cities in the 1950s, America’s economy and freedom of movement for people, goods and services was propelled as never before. Finally, aviation continues to develop global trade routes through which America must compete.

While wagon trails have long since given way to railroads, highways and air travel, surface infrastructure remains critical in transporting people and goods. As such, highways and transit infrastructure must continue to keep pace with our rapidly changing economy. Recent polls show that the economy is a top concern among Americans. With surface transportation infrastructure serving as the backbone of our economy by moving people and goods, it is critical that we invest in the maintenance and improvement of our highways.

Currently, the U.S. highway system includes nearly 4 million miles of public roads. On a daily basis, approximately 53 million tons of goods, valued at about $36 billion, travel over this grid. In 2004, transportation- related goods and services contributed 10.5 percent of the total gross domestic product. With so much riding on our surface transportation infrastructure, I find it disconcerting that much of this network has reached or exceeded its useful design life. Recent tragic events, such as the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis and the closing of a two-mile stretch of I-95 in Pennsylvania due to the discovery of a large crack in a support pillar in the viaduct carrying the interstate, are vivid examples of the need to increase investment in our transportation infrastructure. These incidents suggest creative and effective solutions are necessary as we move forward with the reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users.

The limited resources available to our responsible agencies puts them in an unenviable position of choosing between greatly needed system expansions and ongoing maintenance costs. Either way they choose, our transportation infrastructure will suffer. In order to keep pace with our rapidly deteriorating roads, we must find ways to fund reconstruction.

As Congress begins work on the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization, we again must deal with the challenge of maintaining our aging infrastructure while expanding that infrastructure where needed. To assist with this task, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission released a report titled “Transportation for Tomorrow,” which called for an investment of “at least $225 billion annually from all sources over the next 50 years” in order to maintain a transportation system that will sustain economic growth. We invest less than 40 percent of that amount today.

In order to meet this challenge, policymakers must be open to a wide range of options that direct funding toward infrastructure. Many government budgets are already stretched thin. It is becoming more and more difficult to simply maintain — let alone increase — the funding we direct to our transportation infrastructure.

Recently, the House passed H.R. 6003, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act. This innovative legislation creates an opportunity to develop the next-generation passenger-rail service in the United States. Over the next five years this legislation will authorize more than $500 million per year for an innovative state grant program for passenger-rail projects. Additionally, the Department of Transportation will solicit proposals for financing and development of the high-speed rail link from private entities. These two measures combined are an example of the public-private partnerships necessary to keep pace with our rapidly increasing transportation needs.

Creative solutions exist beyond our borders. In the context of a global economy, our competitors are making huge investments in surface transportation infrastructure. Developing countries, such as China, are advancing by leaps and bounds in finding ways to fund their highway investment. For example, in 2008 alone, it is expected that China will build at least 3,000 miles of expressways. By 2020 China plans to expand its highway network to more than 52,000 miles. If we are to remain competitive with industrial nations such as China, we must keep pace in increasing investment in our transportation grid.

Some have suggested that we increase the federal gas tax to pay for these investments. However, the gas tax is becoming obsolete as more and more vehicles become increasingly fuel-efficient and incorporate newer technologies such as alternative fuels, hybrids and the lithium ion battery that will require users to pay less and less in gasoline tax.

Additionally, hardworking Americans are suffering at the pump with record-high gas prices. The last thing our nation needs is another tax increase that may hit those at the lowest end of the economic ladder the hardest because they may have older and less fuel- efficient vehicles.

We must also better address the donor state issue, which causes hard-pressed constituents in states with struggling economies, such as my home state of Michigan, to send more money to Washington than we receive back from the federal government. As a result, states in the most dire need to upgrade aging infrastructure do not get their fair share of funding. That situation must be improved in the reauthorization of this bill.

I firmly believe creative solutions are critical in funding our highway system as the gas tax becomes less and less efficient at meeting the needs of our infrastructure. Fortunately, the “Transportation for Tomorrow” report and other parties have put forth a number of ideas that deserve consideration from Congress. In particular, we must give full consideration to increased private financing, public-private partnerships and other innovative and forward- looking approaches that can result in ensuring we meet our nation’s substantial infrastructure needs while limiting potential negative impacts on the nation’s taxpayers.

Congress is facing substantial and important challenges as we move forward in meeting the needs of our economy and preserving and enhancing our infrastructure. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that the decisions we make look forward and ensure America’s place at the forefront of the global economy of the 21st century.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.