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Finding Our Way: Time to Move Forward on Federal Surface Transportation Authorization

HNTB Holdings Ltd.

It’s crunch time for those of us in the infrastructure industry. This summer the nation must once again navigate a federal surface transportation authorization process in a deeply divided Congress following a brief 27-month reprieve.

As our representatives and senators grapple over the national budget, the general public struggles to grasp the urgency those of us involved with building and maintaining transportation place on the need for real infrastructure investment, despite their experiences with the occasional system closures due to deteriorating conditions.

Without a long-term, well-funded, sustainable funding source historically supplied by federal reauthorization, each day we are weakening the transportation building blocks that support American jobs, a robust economy, and a healthy quality of life.

A recent analysis of the 2013 National Bridge Inventory database from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that nearly a quarter of a billion times a day our cars, trucks, and school buses cross America’s more than 63,000 structurally compromised bridges. The most heavily traveled of these bridges are on the Interstate Highway System. With one exception, all are at least 39 years old.

America must address its aging roads, bridges, and rails, and our country needs to be more resilient against natural and man-made disasters. Yet the last time Congress voted to increase the gas tax, and therefore the user-generated revenue supporting the Highway Trust Fund, was 1993. Since then, inflation has seriously eroded the fund’s purchasing power. A federal program that continues at current—or lower—levels will extend a quarter-century underinvestment in our nation’s transportation system and hamper cash-strapped states and their transportation agencies planning and attempting to complete major programs.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: If the trust fund isn’t at least shored up by July, federal aid highway reimbursements to states will slow, and there will be no new highway or public-transportation investments in Fiscal Year 2015. Congress must act by Sept. 30.

So the current, aging system is underfunded, in danger of being unfunded and cannot meet existing needs, let alone that of a nation expected to grow to 400 million by 2039.

However, this is a problem of political will rather than an engineering one to be solved. Our primary “investors”—U.S. taxpayers, policymakers, elected officials, private capital providers, and the business community—must be able to envision and agree on the kind of prosperous future we want and the transportation infrastructure we need to deliver us there.

People are willing to pay when they can trust what they will get. Last November, 91 percent of ballot measures to increase or extend funding for highways, bridges, and transit across the country passed.

So, there are reasons to be optimistic, more now than in the last several years. The Obama administration has suggested a $302 billion, four-year bill, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been drumming up grassroots support across the country, officially unveiling the proposed GROW AMERICA Act April 29. U.S. House and Senate proposals are expected this spring. Many state governors are talking about the importance of adequate infrastructure investment.

HNTB works with transportation authorities nationwide to improve conditions and performance of the nation’s bridges, highways, and transit systems. Based on that experience, it’s clear funding uncertainty has a direct impact on how often state departments of transportation postpone or cancel vital projects—and at the same time shelve related, valuable jobs.

Now is the time to innovate, to bring all forms of funding, financing, and technology-based tools to the table. And while we cannot rely solely on the gas tax, we do need to increase it in the short term. It’s time to change the process of how we plan and deliver infrastructure projects. Let’s move forward.

In fact, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and Ranking Member Nick Rahall recently announced the creation of a special panel to advise the committee on public-private partnerships. And a proposed national infrastructure bank would leverage $50 billion to provide low-cost loans and loan guarantees totaling $750 billion to state and local infrastructure projects and public-private partnerships.

The historic precedent and constitutional mandate is clear—meeting our nation’s infrastructure needs is foremost to our interstate commerce, safety, security, and global competitiveness. Our best-regarded elected leaders have supported infrastructure and fully understood what America would get in return for its investments: job creation, economic development, improved quality of life, and increased American competitiveness in the international marketplace.

It’s past time we work together as a nation to make the proper investments. The American transportation network is the nation’s backbone, and it must be strong, now and in the future.

HNTB Corporation is an employee-owned infrastructure firm serving public and private owners and contractors. For more information, click here.

© 2014 HNTB Companies. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

This “Commentary” section features different points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes and views that affect public transportation.
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