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July 25, 2014
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editorial

Time to fix our roads and highways


A common pastime these days in the Upper Delaware River Valley is grumbling about the current miserable condition of our roads and highways. Some people blame this on the rough winter we just had, but truth be told, many of those same roads and highways were in no great shape to begin with, due to years of neglect by both the Empire and Keystone states.

New York State’s (NYS) 2013 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (www.infrastructurereportcard.org/a/#p/state-facts/new-york) deems 60% of all major NYS roads to be of poor or mediocre quality, resulting in costs of $403 per motorist annually from driving on roads in need of repair. Additionally, the report card counts 2,169 structurally deficient bridges—21% of all state bridges—while another 27% are considered functionally obsolete.

Across the river, 57% of Pennsylvania’s roads were rated in poor or mediocre condition in 2010 (www.infrastructurereportcard.org/pennsylvania/pennsylvania-overview/. The website promises a more current update soon for 2014.) Repairs and operating expenses cost each Pennsylvania motorist $341 in 2010. More than 5,500 PA bridges (24.4%) are considered structurally deficient, and 19.3% are considered functionally obsolete.

Today, there are some signs that the tide is beginning to turn. Deciding to invest in roads and highways, PA recently increased its gasoline tax to 41.8 cents a gallon (up from 32.3 cents). New York State’s gas tax stands at 49.86 cents a gallon, and the Empire State is in the second year of a transportation infrastructure investment program. While it appears that the two states have started to figure out that they have to do something about our deteriorating infrastructure, the question remains whether they can afford to do all that is necessary. Problems as big as this don’t get fixed overnight, which is why we believe a long-range plan for infrastructure work is necessary at the highest levels of state government.

Locally, Damascus Township, one of the 10 largest municipalities in Pennsylvania with more than 90 miles of roads, already has received an earlier-than-anticipated infusion of $30,000 from the state’s gas-tax hike. This is very welcome, according to Supervisor Jeff Dexter, after years of decreasing state highway aid to municipalities, a period during which the state put the money in its own pocket. After a decade of “doing less with less,” Dexter said, “This will help stop the bleeding, but we still have a long way to go.” He’s also looking forward to a bump up in state funds for the Dirt and Gravel Roads Program, which had not seen an increase in decades. “I think we have some 30 odd miles of roads eligible for this grant, and now the county is looking to receive substantially more [funds]. It would be a tremendous help if we could do two to three miles [of roads] every year.” This summer, the township will complete one mile of River Road.

Meantime, in Washington, DC, there seems to be far less optimism about funding infrastructure. The federal gasoline tax has not been raised since 1993 and is still 18.4 cents a gallon, which brings us to the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF), the funding mechanism that pays for much of the nation’s roadwork. It pays approximately 45% of what the states spend on roads and bridges, and it is currently projected to run out of money at the end of August (and the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, which sets federal highway funding, expires altogether on October 1). Whether the two parties in Congress have the will to work together in an election year, remains to be seen.

Recently, transportation secretary Anthony Foxx warned that 700,000 jobs could be lost if Congress lets the trust fund run dry.

Congress has several options: It can take no action, causing more than 100,000 highway and bridge projects to be put on hold; it can transfer the tax burden to the states; or Congress could agree to a massive transfer of money from general tax revenues, something it has had to do in the past.

Some on Capitol Hill would prefer to see longer-term solutions. Last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted (with bipartisan support) to advance a new six-year transportation bill that would spend about $53 billion a year, a figure the ASCE calls regrettably inadequate to address the investment gap. It is not clear if or when the Senate will consider the bill. Meantime, the Obama administration has proposed a four-year transportation bill calling for more than $85 billion a year, but has declined to endorse raising the gas tax.

What our political leaders must appreciate is that our crumbling highway infrastructure costs the economy. “By 2020, America’s projected surface transportation infrastructure deficiencies are expected to cost the national economy cumulatively around $900 billion in GDP,” with the cost to businesses estimated at $430 billion (cumulative to 2020) and $481 billion to American households. (You can find more of these statistics in the ASCE’s “Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future” released in 2013 (www.asce.org/uploadedfiles/Infrastructure/failure_to_act/failure_to_act_...).

History shows that investment in infrastructure creates jobs. FDR’s New Deal programs—The Rural Electrification Act of 1935, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, the Works Progress Administration and the like—not only put Americans to work in the Great Depression, but simultaneously helped build the America we have today.

Isn’t this kind of investment simply the right thing to do? We believe that those in Congress who throw roadblocks in front of urgently needed highway and infrastructure funding should be held accountable when the opt for inaction.