Our forefathers looked into the future and made substantial investment in what is today’s surface transportation system — and we all have benefited from it. The interstate highway system built in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, helped put the United States on a path toward sustained economic growth, huge productivity increases, and squarely at the top of the national and international market for goods and services.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s transportation vision back in 1955, which he shared in his State of the Union Address, remains even more relevant today. “A modern, efficient highway system,” he said, “is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security.”
National security needs aside, numerous independent-expert estimates indicate that the nation’s transportation infrastructure is not nearly keeping pace with the demands or needs of a sustainable growing economy — for today or for future generations. We all know that, but let me quantify things a bit. Today, the country’s surface transportation infrastructure includes more than 4 million miles of roads and 600,000 bridges. However, over my lifetime, total federal, state, and local investment in surface transportation has fallen as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) from 2.2 percent in the early 1960s to just over 1.5 percent today.
That drop in investment even takes into consideration recent enactment of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Meanwhile, our population has more than doubled. Congestion — equating to nearly 6 billion hours a year collectively sitting in traffic — is costing families more than $120 billion in extra fuel and lost time. And the overall need for major road repairs has increased dramatically (and contributed to approximately 10,000 traffic fatalities last year alone). Put another way, the U.S. now ranks 18th globally in the overall quality of our roads, with an estimated 25,000 bridges requiring major repairs.
Without question, the U.S. is stuck in a ditch. So what’s it going to take to get the country back on the road again?
We need to look back to what President Eisenhower did, with emphasis on “did.” Consider the following three steps he took to accelerate progress:
• He articulated a clear vision that brought about a distinct set of actions. To do this now, the federal government first must provide leadership in reinvesting in infrastructure (perhaps back to historical high levels as a percent of GDP) by outlining a strategic vision for the country’s infrastructure systems. This will require action across all levels of government and jurisdictions — especially because of our vital economic mega-regions around the U.S. This vision also must provide state and local governments with stable, targeted, and innovative funding mechanisms.
• He rationalized and prioritized investments. The FAST Act begins to chip away at this by providing for grant funds to states (FASTLANE grants) focusing on high-volume, high-impact interstate freight corridors first. In assessing the interstate freight corridor needs, we also need to evaluate which projects likely will have the greatest positive impact on productivity and safety and make the greatest contribution to the nation’s economic growth and international competitiveness.
• He invested in the future. A smart infrastructure strategy needs to take into account changing demographics and environmental and economic trends, from bike and pedestrian pathways to urban revitalization and more efficient access to intermodal transportation facilities, including ports.
We will find no better way to get the nation’s economy out of the proverbial ditch and back on the road than to invest again in the country’s surface transportation infrastructure. It would put more people to work, shore up our long-term global economic competitiveness, improve our quality of life, and, ultimately, support our national security. President Eisenhower would be proud.
Jim Twomey, P.E., is executive vice president and market lead, Surface Transportation for Michael Baker International (www.mbakerintl.com).