Transportation

Road Work Ahead Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America's Crumbling Roads and Bridges

Over the last 50 years, America has built roads and bridges at a pace and scale that dwarfs most of the rest of the world. We’ve built a national highway network like no other, with more than 45,000 miles of interstate highway and 575,000 highway bridges. 

Now, much of that system is showing its age – and as maintenance needs continue to grow, we are falling farther behind. Across the nation, drivers face more than 90,000 miles of crumbling highways and more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges. Neglected maintenance of roads and bridges acts as a constant drain on our economy and a scourge on our quality of life. Rough and rutted roads cause accidents, damage vehicles, trigger traffic jams that lead to countless hours of delay, and waste money Americans need for other expenses. On some occasions – such as the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge connecting Minneapolis – it can lead to profound tragedy.

Why are America’s roads and bridges in such terrible shape? And who or what is to blame? 

The deterioration of our roads and bridges is no accident. Rather, it is the direct result of countless policy decisions that put other considerations ahead of the pressing need to preserve our investment in the highway system. Political forces often undermine a strong commitment to maintenance: Members of Congress, state legislators and local politicians thrive on ribbon-cuttings. Powerful special interests push for new and bigger highways. Meanwhile, federal and state policies – which should provide strong guidance in the wise use of taxpayer dollars – often fail to achieve the proper balance between building new infrastructure and taking care of what we already have built.

To fix our roads and bridges, America first must fix our transportation policies. To counteract the tendencies to neglect repair and maintenance, we must adopt strong “fix-it first” rules that give priority to maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, set national goals for the condition of our transportation system, and hold state governments accountable for achieving results.

This report describes how America’s roads and bridges are in disrepair, bringing together a wide variety of statistics and sources with state-by-state analysis. It shows how special interest pressure tilts the playing field toward the construction of new and ever-wider highways at the expense of repair and maintenance. U.S. transportation policy fails to properly emphasize highway and bridge maintenance, with federal transportation policies allocating vast amounts of money to the states with little direction and no accountability, and with Congressional earmarks further tilting spending away from maintenance. State transportation funding policies are often similarly short-sighted, focusing on the creation of politically popular new highways rather than maintaining existing roads and bridges.

Spending more money on transportation won’t fix America’s roads and bridges without a top-to-bottom shift in funding priorities and policies. The report’s recommendations include ways to:

· Make highway and bridge maintenance a national priority.

· Reorganize federal highway programs to focus exclusively on either maintenance or new construction.

· Require states receiving federal aid to plan for future maintenance before building new roads.

· Measure performance the right way.

· Reward states for good performance on national objectives.

· Create fix-it-first policies in the states as well

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Greasing The Wheels

In the wake of the Minnesota I-35 bridge collapse there was enormous public outcry and recognition of the need to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Americans expected public officials to respond to the tragedy with a large scale effort to address the nearly 73,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country. The findings in this report suggest that did not happen.
As Congress prepares a new multi-year, multibillion dollar transportation bill, we explored the intersection of money and politics and recent transportation funding decisions.
We analyzed two data sets and new information that shine light on the influence of campaign giving on transportation funding decisions at the state and federal level. First the report examines, on a state-by-state basis, how much money was contributed to both federal and state campaigns by highway interests, defined as those from the development, automobile, transportation, and construction sectors. Then, the report
looks at the number and dollar amounts of transportation earmarks from the 2008 federal transportation appropriations bill that were funded in each state to highlight the priorities of members of Congress.

Key findings:
• In 2008 there were 704 earmarked “member projects,” in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, totaling more than a half a billion dollars in federal-aid highway projects on the annual transportation appropriations bill.
• Members of Congress earmarked funds in the 2008 appropriations bill for just 74 bridge repair projects. Only slightly more than 10 percent of the highway funds allocated for “member projects” in that year’s appropriations bill went to bridge repair or restoration.1
• At the same time, in 2008, highway interests gave over 133 million dollars to candidates for both federal and state office. The findings suggest that elected officials often overlook preventative maintenance projects, especially when new capacity projects are encouraged by campaign contributions.

Recommendations:
We recommend reform of current campaign finance policy in order to ensure that the public interest is protected and that transportation decisions are made based on smart policy rather than politics.
• Congress should move to a voluntary system of publicly financing our elections that is focused on incentivizing small dollar donors and would raise the voices of individuals, keep elections competitive, and reduce the special access and influence of large corporate donors.
• Congress should spend taxpayers' money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation's biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul - for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety, and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.

Excluding emergency relief funding that was appropriated for the 1-35W bridge after the collapse.

Private Roads, Public Costs

A growing number of states are considering arrangements in which a private operator provides an up-front payoff or builds a new road in return for decades of escalating toll receipts. The report assesses these deals and identifies a number of problems, including: 

· Private toll roads typically require greater toll hikes to generate the same upfront payment that could be generated without privation.

· Private deals lead to serious loss of public control that hinders future transportation planning and typically force public payments to compensate private companies if policies reduce toll traffic.

· Deals are often conducted with inadequate public disclosure or input.

· States generally lack the capacity to oversee or enforce private road agreements

· Problems are compounded by the fact that contracts typically extend 50-plus years in order to obtain large federal tax subsidies.

The study examines 15 completed private road projects and 79 others that are proposed or underway.

The report, which provides numerous public opinion survey results on private roads, also provides six basic principles for protecting the public from bad road privatization deals.

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Economic Stimulus or Simply More Misguided Spending?

President-elect Obama has declared that the next recovery plan must do more than just
pump money into the economy. It will also create the infrastructure that America needs
for the 21st century.

This fall, Congress asked states to submit lists of “ready-to-go” transportation
infrastructure projects that could be funded by the stimulus package. Lists from nineteen state departments of transportation (DOTs) show that the broader goals articulated by President-elect Obama will be undermined if Congress, the Administration, and the states do not establish forward-looking rules for spending stimulus funds.

Only about one-third of state DOTs have released to the public the project lists they
submitted to Congress. However, a majority of the nineteen that have come to light are
badly out of touch with the current trends, public priorities and transportation system
needs that underpin the President-elect’s declaration. Most stimulus project lists from
state DOTs prioritize new highways while paying relatively little attention to repairing
crumbling bridges and roads and even less emphasis on forward-looking transportation
options, such as public transit and intercity rail. As a result, they are contrary to
President-elect Obama’s stated intention to use smart spending to reduce America’s
dependence on oil and emissions of global warming pollution.

On average, the nineteen states would spend more than 75 percent of funds on
highways and only 17 percent on public transit or intercity rail. In fact, seven states
would allocate 1 percent or less, including four that would allocate nothing at all. This
would be a step backward from even the grossly inadequate 20 percent share received
by transit in federal transportation laws since the 1970s. It runs counter to Americans’
stated preferences, declining automobile use, and rapidly increasing transit ridership.
Of the fourteen state lists for which adequate data on types of proposed highway
spending were available, states on average would divert the majority of highway funds
for new and expanded roads rather than addressing their backlog of repair and
maintenance projects. More than a third of states would use less than a quarter of road
funds on backlogged repair or maintenance.

To prevent a misspending of recovery funds, Congress the next Administration and state
leaders should apply six principles:

(1) Any road funds should go first to maintenance and repair of structurally deficient
bridges and roads, not new highways or lanes;
(2) The combined total for public transit, intercity rail, and bicycle and pedestrian
projects should be no less than funds for highways;
(3) Public transportation funds should include support for operations so agencies
can accommodate the rising demand.
(4) Surface Transportation Program highway funds should be distributed as under
current law so that a portion of resources flow directly to metropolitan areas that
know best about which local projects are needed;
(5) All states, cities, and agencies should publicly disclose the stimulus lists they
have submitted;
(6) Direct recipients of stimulus funds should report on how money was spent and
any transportation spending that it displaced.
The economic recovery package will present an opportunity to advance widely
recognized, new transportation priorities for the 21st century. It will be up to Congress,
the Obama Administration, and the states to make sure that happens. So far, however,
too many of the states are off to a troubling start.

News Release | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

PIRG on National Expert Blog about Transportation Stimulus

President-elect Obama is correct to liken an infrastructure stimulus to Eisenhower’s historic initiative to create the Interstate Highway system. That endeavor set the patterns for America’s car-dominated transportation network and suburban growth throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The coming stimulus similarly presents a tremendous opportunity to advance transportation goals for the twenty-first century.

It is critically important how infrastructure stimulus money gets spent. It is not enough to simply spend money. Nor should Congress assume that more transportation is always better. As many have pointed out, America’s transportation system isn’t just broke; it’s also broken. In fact, transportation contributes to many of America’s most pressing problems. Consider:

  • Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of hours stuck in traffic – a problem that is often made worse by construction of new highways.
  • Our transportation system is also the chief source of our nation’s addition to oil, consuming two our of every three barrels, and leaving our nation vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.
  • Cars and trucks are the biggest end-user source of global warming pollution. We will not succeed in reducing these emissions unless we allow Americans to reduce the number of miles they drive.
  • Finally, too many transportation projects like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” have been embarrassing boondoggles that erode confidence in government and divert dollars from more productive uses. 

Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is equally good for the public interest. As state Departments of Transportation eagerly offer lists of favored projects, how should Congress and the Obama administration decide?

 There needs to be a commitment to spend for results rather than simply to inject dollars. The reason that there is such wide consensus that our national transportation system is dysfunctional is because the current system primarily collects gas taxes from the states and then pumps those dollars back based on outdated formulas forged by political compromises that had nothing to do with achieving national goals. For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on highway projects with little evaluation and no accountability. That must change. Spending is not based on allocating dollars where they will yield the greatest results. There are not even clear goals for what the transportation system should accomplish.

 Thus the next Congress should should spend taxpayers’ money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation’s biggest problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on projects that produce real results over the long haul – for example, by reducing our dependence on oil, curbing global warming pollution, alleviating congestion, improving safety, and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.

 A rough guide for what that change looks like can likened to the difference between the early Detroit bailout requests and the emerging counter proposals. Rather than simply throw more money toward continuing failure, the emerging consensus seems to be that funds most go toward a fundamental shift in the business model and in the mix of vehicles that get produced. No less substantive change should be demanded from a stimulus package for our dysfunctional transportation system.

As part of ensuring accountability, state DOTs should report on the results of how transportation stimulus money gets spent. That sounds like common sense but it would actually be a major shift from the current system. States should report back on the extent to which the projects funded with stimulus money increased or decreased jobs, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions, vehicle miles traveled. Perhaps the second installment of a two-year package would be allocated according to how well states advance national goals with the first installment.

Other priorities for spending transportation stimulus should also advance the nation toward future goals. Emphasis should be placed on expanding clean, efficient transportation choices for Americans by prioritizing investment of new funds for light rail, commuter rail, rapid bus service, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of modern public transportation. At least as much money should be allocated to these transportation choices as to roads and highways. In doing so, federal policy will encourage transportation investments that build dynamic and accessible communities, where more Americans can walk, bike or take transit to get where they need to go. Meanwhile stimulus money allocated to roads and bridges must prioritize "fixing it first." Investment should go to maintenance and repair of America's crumbling bridges, not massive new highway expansions. 

The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) has signed up growing support for these basic principles from over 100 public officials from state, local, and federal government as well as other civic leaders. 

 

To see a list of the principles and signatories see:http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation/more-and-better-transit/transportation-principles-signers

 

To see more about U.S. PIRG’s positions and reports on transportation, see: http://www.uspirg.org/issues/transportation

 

For an in-depth report on America’s transportation challenges and solutions, see:http://www.uspirg.org/uploads/2q/fV/2qfVu2ZrflTk-TnRQEDdDw/A-Better-Way-to-Go-vUSPIRG.pdf

To view this and future blogs by Baxandall and Krieger, go to http://transportation.nationaljournal.com/2008/12/how-should-infrastructure-stimulus-be-spent.php

Report | Georgia PIRG Education Fund | Transportation

Squandering the Stimulus

America’s dependence on oil has become increasingly painful. Two thirds of oil in the United States goes to transportation, with the largest share consumed by cars and trucks. As the rising price of gasoline makes driving more expensive, Americans have sought alternatives by driving a little less and riding public transportation more. 

Unfortunately, government policy does too little to help Americans drive less. Energy experts generally agree that the era of cheap gas is over. Scientists likewise agree that road-based global warming pollution must be reduced. But lawmakers have not taken enough steps to help Americans consume less at the pump. On the contrary, overall government policies continue to encourage more driving at the expense of alternatives, leaving Americans poorer, stuck in worsening traffic, and emitting dangerous levels of global-warming pollution. 

Nothing illustrates how the lack of transportation options hurts consumers and our economy more than the fact that, since approval of the tax rebates in February, Americans on average have already spent the amount of their stimulus checks at the pump. The standard stimulus rebate check for American families with a joint filing couple and a child is $1,500. As of this week, the average family household will have already spent over $1,500 at the gas pump since February 13th when President Bush signed the tax rebate checks into law.  

The situation is akin to families signing over their rebate checks to big oil companies like Exxon Mobil or sending them to oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia. We can reduce our crippling dependence on oil through long-term solutions that will make it easier for Americans to drive less. Modern buses, light rail, commuter rail and other forms of transit more efficiently move passengers with less fuel. 

Transit also reduces traffic congestion and encourages more compact development patterns which, in turn, further reduce the amount Americans must drive. Existing public transportation already reduces America’s oil dependence. Analysis by Georgia PIRG shows that net oil savings from public transportation totaled 3.4 billion gallons in 2006, the last year for which full data on transit agency and ridership is currently available. These oil savings are enough to fuel 5.8 million cars for an entire year and to save about $13.6 billion in gasoline at today’s prices. 

In metro Atlanta, public transit saved 88 million gallons, the equivalent of $359.2 million at today’s gas prices. Comparing spending on transportation in neighborhoods with different access to rail and bus routes underscores the gas-saving benefits of public transit, according to newly released analysis by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) as part of a Brookings Institution project. Based on analysis of 2000 Census data in 52 metro areas, neighborhoods with the best access to transit routes spent an average of $728 monthly on all transportation costs, including gas, insurance, upkeep, and transit fares. Households in communities with the least access to transit, by contrast, spent an average of $925 per month.  Public transit solutions can do far more. 

At present, underfunded transit agencies are struggling to keep up with the record volume of riders. Despite the success of new rail lines and bus routes around the country, a long line of new transit projects remains stuck on the drawing board due to lack of funding. Federal, state, and local governments must invest in solutions to oil dependence through more and better public transportation. 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Transportation

Support Us

Your donation supports Georgia PIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code



Georgia PIRG is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to getting things done.