We’ve reached “peak highways” – read why

A very detailed examination of why we are done with our 50 year experiment of massive highway building.  I love it that the headline writers call the highways “our playground.”  The world they grew up in is ending.  Children born today will never, ever consider highways playgrounds.  Hopefully, they will have real playgrounds – ones that don’t waste energy, help destroy our environment, and don’t kill people.

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The State of the Union’s Roads: An Investigative Report – Feature

What’s happening to our playground? The American highway is broken. And broke.

BY ZACH ROSENBERG, PHOTOGRAPHY BY MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES, ILLUSTRATION BY BRYAN CHRISTIE DESIGN

The Minneapolis bridge carrying I-35W over the Mississippi River, which opened to traffic in 1967, was almost 2000 feet long and designed to handle 66,000 cars a day. Over the years, it had been modified, increasing the total weight, or “dead load.” Another construction project concentrated supplies and equipment over a gusset plate that, by an original design error, was inadequate to support so much weight.  At 6:05 p.m. on August 1, 2007, under the pressure of  the evening commute, the gusset plate suddenly failed, shedding its load onto other gusset plates, which could not handle the burden. The bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and sending 98 to hospitals. It was a spectacular failure. State Departments of  Transportation quickly checked out 700 similar bridges and closed a handful.

About five percent of interstate bridges—roughly 2770—are now deemed structurally deficient. This does not mean they are unsafe, but it does mean there is visible rust or wear. There are approximately 600,000 road bridges in this country surveyed biannually for the National Bridge Inventory, including all interstate bridges, of  which there are about 54,500. Though relatively small in number, the interstate bridges account for 90 percent of daily bridge traffic.

One of the most notorious spans, the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, carries I-287 over the Hudson River. It is a crucial regional link, and it is rated both structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. The Tappan Zee was built to handle 18,000 cars a day but now carries 150,000; for six hours a day, both ends of rush hour, the Tappan Zee is at a virtual standstill with bumper-to-bumper traffic that backs up for miles in either direction. The bridge is not about to fall into the river but does require constant work to maintain its current capacity. A replacement bridge built just to carry the current load is estimated at more than $5 billion. The state of New York will be more than $55 billion in debt this financial year.

The August 1, 2007, collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis killed 13 people and sent 98 to the Hospital.

This is the era of the worn-out highway, of the traffic jam, of endless commutes, of road rage. Beltways and bypasses will not help you. We demand more, far more, than the interstates were built to withstand. The 2009 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave American highways a grade of D-minus for a good reason. In 2008, a government-appointed blue-ribbon panel suggested that the U.S. needed to invest $130 billion ­annually to maintain the current level of interstate performance. That’s roughly $100 ­billion more than transportation outlays that year. The tipping point has arrived: We either have to figure out a way to rebuild the interstates or watch them fall apart.

The U.S. has the most comprehensive system of roadways on the planet. We boast 4 million miles of roads, more than the entire European Union. The backbone that ties everything together is the National System of  Interstate and Defense Highways, known to most as the Interstate Highway System. It is a staggering feat of engineering and construction, cutting giant sections through mountains and forests and fields and cities, binding together and separating in tangled masses. To those who might complain that America doesn’t build great monuments anymore, a trip through the Big Dig in Boston or over the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge suggests otherwise. At 48,000 miles, the interstate system is the greatest, most expansive, most expensive public-works project our country has ever built.

The interstates have so significantly affected the American landscape that our very lifestyle is unimaginable without them. They were built to connect farms and major production areas with markets in metropolitan areas as well as to link cities together for more efficient business travel. Their road speeds and accessibility allowed urban workers to inhabit more space and live more cheaply, so they picked up an additional role: getting commuters to work and back efficiently. They fulfilled this last responsibility so effectively that a sturdy home and a verdant lawn in the suburbs became the American Dream, pulling people ever outward in such numbers that many metro areas—Los Angeles, Atlanta, Phoenix—now sprawl across hundreds of miles. And the result is the American rush hour, when twice per weekday otherwise free-flowing highways become hopelessly clogged.

Now massive sections of the interstate, including almost all of  them near major ­cities, have reached the end of their useful life; the interstates were designed to last 20 or 30 years, but now some areas are pushing 50 years and handling far more traffic than their planners anticipated. But as we reach into our wallets, we run into our generation’s big dilemma: We’re nearly broke.

When you go to the pump, every gallon of gasoline you buy includes 18.4 cents for the federal government, plus whatever your particular state charges in taxes. The federal money is collected by the Treasury Department, which puts it into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Since the trust fund’s creation in 1956, the gas tax has only been raised three times: to 9 cents per gallon in 1982, to 14.1 cents in 1990, and to 18.4 cents in 1993.

The HTF is a rare beast in the political world. Usually, federal tax money goes into the general fund, where legislators first pass an authorization bill, giving guidelines about how the money can be spent, then a separate appropriations bill actually putting the money into things like buying fighter jets or paying the National Institutes of Health’s electric bill. The HTF’s authorization guarantees that all federal gas-tax revenue will only be put there. Whenever a new transportation spending bill is passed, called a reauthorization, there are slight tweaks to the HTF and how it is spent, but in general it is considered sacrosanct. The HTF is divided into several branches, the interstate program being by far the largest.

Since 2005, the trust fund has been spent according to the latest reauthorization, SAFETEA-LU (an acronym for the Safe,  Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users), which allocated a total that Congress could spend over the bill’s life span, doling out roughly one-sixth each year. The long time frame is necessary so state transportation departments have enough lead time to plan and build a project, secure in the knowledge of how much money they’ll get and the limits of what they can spend it on. SAFETEA-LU, for example, authorized about $193 billion between 2005 and 2009 for the trust fund, an average of about $32 billion per year to the states.

Once in the HTF, interstate money is divided according to complex formulas that take into account things such as lane-miles of road, the number of  licensed drivers, ­priority programs for things like bridge replacements, and equity provisions to ensure that every state gets a minimum (currently guaranteed at 92 percent) of their contribution back. State transportation departments, which plan, build, and maintain the interstates, decide what they want to do and then pay for it; the federal share for interstate projects is 90 percent, 80 percent if no high-occupancy lanes are built.

Now, the HTF is running out of money. The first reason is that the gas tax does not keep up with inflation. As inflation rises, each dollar buys fewer and fewer goods and services. Sales tax, for example, is a tax on the dollar—for every dollar you spend, the government gets a certain amount, so the more something costs, the more goes into the feds’ coffers. The gas tax, however, is a tax on a unit of measure, and since your 1995 Honda Accord requires the same amount of gas per fill-up as when it was new, the federal government still gets the same amount of money regardless of the total cost. To match the rate of inflation and have the same value that the 18.4-cent tax did in 1993, the gas tax  would have to be increased to 28 cents per gallon.

Second, the relatively rapid proliferation of fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles means people are buying less gas per mile driven. The use of cars keeps increasing—car travel is up 39 percent since 1990 and heavy-truck travel, 64 percent—so the increase in traffic outpaces the amount of gasoline purchased. Extremely fuel-efficient cars are becoming more popular, and the owner of an all-electric car isn’t funding highways at all.

Third, construction is getting more expensive. Worldwide demand for building supplies is rising, and prices are escalating. The global recession has hit the construction industry particularly hard, as credit for giant projects is more difficult to find. But rest assured, it will rebound. China, in particular, is in the midst of an unprecedented infrastructure building boom; in recent years, it alone has bought about 40 percent of the world’s steel and produced half of the world’s cement.

Tappan Zee Bridge in New York

Not rebuilding will cost you, too. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the average annual cost of vehicle maintenance due to rough roads is $335, up substantially from previous years. Not surprisingly, the costs are concentrated in urban areas, where 80 percent of Americans live, work, and drive. It is unlikely to get better. The Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, the most authoritative paper on the topic, found that in 2009, commuters wasted 3.9 billion gallons of fuel in traffic jams and, on average, 34 hours per person. In 1993, the year of the last gas-tax increase, the figures were 2.1 billion gallons and 30 hours per person. (Note, however, that the maximum for both figures was in 2006, before the recession hit.)

The recent stimulus package contained some money for interstate building and maintenance, but the impact was relatively minimal. However, one small portion was given to the federal DOT for a new grant program, known as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), which handed out money in a new way: Localities and states made cases for individual projects, and the federal DOT awarded grants based on its own criteria, an approach assuring that national goals would be held above state goals.

Over the past few years, legislators injected money into the HTF from the general fund, $47 billion in total, giving it a reprieve; the money is now expected to run out in about 2014, so the federal government has until then to either raise more money or contribute less to highways. But the 2010 midterm elections brought to power a new wave of fiscally conservative legislators who vow to impose radical spending cuts. Interstate spending has traditionally been inviolable because it ran through everyone’s district and mostly funded itself, but that’s no longer the case.

L.A. Interstate 405

States decide what interstate projects they want to build according to their own criteria, which is often just whatever state politicians can hash out, leaving the money susceptible to political whim. Transportation is a favorite pork product: It’s tangible, it’s helpful, highway projects take a long time to build and last through the next election cycle. It is a visible manifestation of  how your government can directly benefit your neighborhood. But maybe your neighborhood doesn’t need that extra lane or repaving. So if the state won’t provide the cash for a pet project, the recent rise of earmarks means you can bypass the state altogether and ask your local Congressman to slip your favorite project into the next bill.

“President Reagan vetoed the transport bill in the 1980s because it had 100 earmarks in it, and now it has 6000-plus,” says Robert Puentes, a transportation scholar at the Brookings Institution. “It’s become kind of a manifestation of what’s wrong with the federal program today, in that the congressmen have to ask for these special projects because there’s a feeling that the program is not delivering these things otherwise.” While earmarks can include badly needed transportation projects that have gone unfunded by the state, they are rife with abuse. By far, the most famous earmark to date is $223 million for a bridge to Gravina Island, Alaska, population 50. It is commonly known as the “Bridge to Nowhere” and has become an enduring symbol of profligate waste in Washington.

“The consequences are absolutely staggering. Everybody thinks that every highway dollar goes to things like that,” says Leif Wathne, P.E., of the American Concrete Pavement Association. “In the public’s eye, every dollar is dedicated to some bridge to nowhere, and it’s a gross misunderstanding. That [earmark] was a catastrophe.” The earmark was withdrawn with the compromise that the state of  Alaska would get the money but not build the bridge. It should be noted that under current transportation bill ­SAFETEA-LU’s formula, Alaska has received nearly $5 for every $1 it contributes.

SAFETEA-LU was supposed to expire in 2009 and be replaced by a new, updated bill. Instead, it was extended at the last minute to allow legislators just a little more time to hammer out the new bill. Then another extension.  And another. SAFETEA-LU has now been extended seven times and is set to expire in September. If that happens, reimbursements automatically stop and the federal highway program ends, leaving the states to fend for themselves. It is unthinkable that legislators would allow the current bill to expire without a replacement, but simply extending SAFETEA-LU leaves states using 2005-level money on roads that are now six years older and more worn. President Obama has proposed a replacement, a new Surface Transportation Bill; as of the time of this writing, it has not been introduced to Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans seem devoted to passing a ­SAFETEA-LU replacement this year, but exactly what it contains promises to be the subject of big political battle. This will be a fun summer in Washington. The states cannot plan future work if they don’t know how much money they’ll get and what the formulas will look like. Few people believe there should be no federal role in the interstate system, but there is clear pressure to cut costs everywhere, and the public’s perception of  highway spending is not always positive.

So this is the crossroads at which we find ourselves today: Our highways and bridges are falling apart, but we don’t have the money to maintain them. The only options are to raise new revenue—essentially raising taxes—or decide what we want to do with the revenue we currently have.

Two major government panels, one in 2008 to deal with surface transportation and another in 2010 to address the national deficit, came to the same conclusion: Raise the gas tax temporarily and use the time that buys to transition to something better. In both cases, the recommendation was a tax based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). A VMT tax would essentially be what the gas tax was originally, a road-usage charge. Small test trials are being carried out, but doubtless a transition to VMT on a national scale would face wide opposition, first because it literally involves the government directly tracking the distance you drive; ­second because, as with the original tax, it is possible to rack up miles without ever once taking the interstate; third, of course, because it is a new tax.

Another oft-discussed option is in­creased tolling. This is the most straightforward user fee because only those who use the road pay the toll. Of particular interest are flexible tolls, in which the toll price would change depending on traffic. Toll systems are already in widespread use, including the New Jersey Turnpike, which charges based on the distance driven, and I-10 in Texas, which includes “HOT lanes,” or lanes free for high-occupancy vehicles that solo drivers can access for a toll.

Dr. David Ellis, a finance specialist at the Texas Transportation Institute, points out that while toll roads may not be popular, they are better than no road at all. In the era of deep government debt, raising the money to build a toll road may be a problem. Government-issued bonds have often played a strong role, but there are alternatives. One possibility is public-private partnerships like the Indiana Toll Road: Indiana leased an existing toll road to a group of banks, which keeps the fees but must maintain the road. Another proposal is a National Infrastructure Bank, a government-run clearinghouse for government and/or private capital to loan money to worthwhile projects.

It is an axiom of traffic planners that increased speed due to capacity building is temporary; as traffic flows more smoothly, word gets out, and that attracts more traffic, eventually causing the same traffic-flow issues as before. The inevitable conclusion is that we cannot possibly build enough roads to satisfy demand, so we must consider alternative transportation systems.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

The Interstate Highway System was built to get manufactured goods and agricultural products to market and to get long-range travelers from metropolis to metropolis. It fulfills these roles, but the America it was built for no longer exists. The U.S. no longer manufactures as it once did. Does Detroit—down 1 million from its peak population in 1950 and falling—need as much capacity as before, especially if it comes at the expense of an expanding metropolis? As a net importer and service economy, is capacity sufficient from ports of entry to the marketplaces? With a vast majority of Americans living and working in urban areas, why not adjust formulas to account for the new population distribution?

This country has not had a comprehensive transportation strategy in decades, but now is an excellent time to consider one. And that means we need to take a hard look at what role highways should play and how they fit into the broader transportation network. Sprawling car-centric cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Dallas are rushing to build new mass-transit systems—they have to; the roads they have cannot satisfy demand. So they must harmonize with other modes of transportation to reduce the stress on existing roadways as much as possible.

We as a nation must make difficult, unpopular decisions about what to build, what to keep, and what to let turn to dust. “It comes down to beginning to make more strategic decisions about what we maintain at what level. We have a very limited amount of funds available to build new capacity,” says Dr. Ellis. “We want to make sure we get the biggest bang for the buck. What kind of transportation investments allow us to do that, as opposed to just being able to sit there and say, ‘Well, we’ve got X dollars. Let’s go out and repave a bunch of roads.’ Well, we don’t have that luxury. We don’t have it in Texas, and I doubt if  we have it in any state.”

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