Editor’s Comments: Something To Build On

April 1, 2015

One of the most pressing issues that I feel needs immediate and constant attention is the condition of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is how we pay for road, highway, and bridge repairs and expansion. It gets its revenues mostly from the federal gas tax. The last time the tax was increased was in 1993 to 18.4 cents. That was about 18% of the price of a gallon of gas in that year. The gas tax is still 18.4 cents in 2015 and since the tax is not indexed for inflation, today it’s only about 8% of the price of a gallon of gas. The HTF has been nearly out of money for years now. It’s been limping along on short-term fixes and plugs and patches because our lawmakers will not agree on how to renew the Highway Trust Fund.

Last fall, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the former Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. While talking about the Highway Trust Fund, I asked him how he would characterize the current state of the nation’s infrastructure as well as the current state of the Fund. He responded by saying, “I think America is one big pothole. These brutal winters have killed communities all over the country that have faced the very cold weather and a lot of snow and a lot of salt, and states have not been able to keep up, because they don’t have the resources because there’s nothing happening in Washington. The Transportation Bill has expired. They’ve extended it, but there’s very little money to do anything creative to rebuild a road. You can fill it with some blacktop, or fill a pothole, but it’s only going to last until the next snowfall. We’re in the worst shape that we have been in…America is like a third world country right now when it comes to infrastructure. We really are.”

It was shocking for me to hear our former Transportation Secretary describe our infrastructure as being “third world.”

Just last month, the television news magazine 60 Minutes did a feature story on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, which included comments from Secretary LaHood (www.cbsn.ws/1tppLF9). The report pointed out nearly 70,000 bridges in America that are considered to be structurally deficient—that’s one out of every nine bridges. The video highlighted crumbling concrete, and rusting and corroding steel. The story took viewers to Pennsylvania where there are more than 4,000 bridges in metropolitan Pittsburg. Twenty percent of them are structurally deficient. Five million people drive across bridges that either need to be replaced or need to undergo major repairs. They’ve even built a structure in Pittsburg with the sole purpose of catching cement debris that’s falling off of a bridge and keep it from landing on the traffic below.

In Philadelphia, a 22-mile stretch of Highway I-95 in the city has 15 structurally deficient bridges that would cost about $7 billion in total to fix. Three hundred bridges become structurally deficient each year in the state of Pennsylvania, adding 1% each year to the current 23%.

The report also pointed out that 32% of the major roads in America are now in poor condition and in need of major repairs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The work of the 114th Congress began a couple of weeks ago, and again, the HTF is scheduled to run out of money in a few months. You can bet the construction lobbies and the equipment manufacturing lobbies will be hitting them hard on this seemingly bipartisan cause to update the Highway Trust Fund. All compasses appear to be pointing to increased hiring, industry stability, and economic growth. And not just for those of us in the construction industry but for the rest of the country as well. When our infrastructure is healthy and growing, prosperity and opportunity like to knock on everyone’s door.

If there’s anything in the long list of challenges that face our nation, the state of the Highway Trust Fund and therefore the health of our country’s infrastructure, should be one of, if not the most, pressing. If there is outrage to be doled out, direct it at the senators and representatives that have let this issue fester and rot. March on Washington! But do it quick, before there are no more roads or bridges to get there.