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Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.Back to OpinionSamuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

No bridge over troubled water: Our economy depends on a functioning transportation system

Lake Champlain Bridge is seen blocked off in Addison, Vt., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. The sudden closing of the bridge had businesses on both sides of Lake Champlain laying off people, commuters howling and state officials ready to declare a state of emergency. Photo: AP Photo/Toby Talbot

This country is in an infrastructure crisis. According to the American Society for Civil Engineers’ “2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” one in every four bridges in this country is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One-third of America’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested. Plus, nearly half of American households do not have access to public transportation.

The current House transportation proposal would fund transportation up to $38 billion a year – to be shared between the highway, transit and highway safety programs. The Senate proposal would maintain funding at fiscal year 2010 levels. The problem is that our current funding levels are about $14 billion less than the $56 billion needed just to maintain our highway system’s current performance — which the ASCE has already rated a D.

Fifty-six billion dollars for highways alone? We can’t afford that, especially in these cash-strapped times!

Then I read “Failure to Act,” a report ASCE released on July 27, which looks at the economic impact of current transportation investment trends on Americans’ job prospects and quality of life today and 20 years into the future. And the truth is we can’t afford not to spend that amount for our infrastructure needs — especially in these cash-strapped times. Our economy will fall apart alongside our bridges, roads and transit systems — and we’re feeling it already.

In 2010, congestion squandered 630 million vehicle hours traveled. That translates into a waste of about $32 billion in travel time delays. Surface transportation deficiencies cost households and businesses nearly $130 billion in 2010. This included approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $1.2 billion in safety costs and $590 million in environmental costs.

Let me give you an example of how failing to maintain a structure leads to increased costs:

Lake Champlain Bridge connected two previously isolated communities on either side of Lake Champlain. The 80-year-old, 2,200-foot-long bridge wasn’t adequately maintained; the New York State Department of Transportation only budgeted $30 million a year for its bridge program, even though it needed about $100 million a year to maintain all its 830 bridges. So in 2009, NYSDOT scheduled emergency repairs for the structure and assured everyone it would be serviceable until 2013. Then someone spotted a crack in one of the bridge’s concrete pillars, forcing its immediate and permanent closure. The bridge had to be demolished and a new one built in its stead.

Meanwhile, the 3,400 drivers who used Lake Champlain Bridge on a daily basis to get to jobs, stores and hospitals now had to drive around the northern end of the lake — adding 100 miles and more than two hours to their round trip — or wait for the only one of two ferries that operated in winter.

This was a lose-lose-lose situation. Residents had to spend more time and money on commutes, local businesses lost customers and revenue, and the state had to spend millions and millions of dollars on the avoidable costs of the construction of a brand new bridge as well as wear and tear on detoured roads.

Consider this a precursor for communities throughout the United States. Extrapolating trends to 2040, ASCE calculated that deficient surface transportation infrastructure will cost Americans more than 400,000 jobs and nearly $3 trillion. We’ll lose jobs in high value, high-paying services and manufacturing industries and gain them in lower-paying, less productive sectors like automobile repair services. We’ll also lose more than $72 billion in foreign exports in comparison with the level of exports from a transportation-sufficient U.S. economy.

Here’s why:

Lost money. Businesses will have to divert more and more of their income to pay for transportation delays and vehicle repairs — up to $430 billion by 2020. They’ll have that much less to invest in other areas, like research and expansion. Families will have to give up vacations, cultural events, educational opportunities, restaurants, and some medical care, in order to pay up to $482 billion in avoidable transportation costs by 2020.

Lost productivity. Due to time lost in congestion, it might take two people to reach the same level of productivity as one person could in an efficient transportation system.   Bad transportation increases trucking costs. It also means fewer face-to-face meetings, which is the essence of deal-making for the average business person.

Lost jobs. Worsening transportation conditions will create jobs in lower-paying sectors like automobile repair services, while higher-paid positions disappear.

Yes, transportation systems cost money. But they generate money, too. They help create the jobs and economic prosperity our nation so desperately needs. If we start properly funding our surface transportation system today, we can help build a brighter future than the one painted in this ASCE report.

The costs of failing to act are the ones we really can’t afford. If we continue down this road of neglect, we’ll need to start cutting our losses and performing infrastructure triage.

– Co-written with Laura MacNeil