Trails in Indiana

The complicated problem of the United States Transportation Budget in 2011: A Brief Overview.

It is no laughing matter.  So much bad information and misinformation and political posturing makes a reasoned analysis of the budget proposals for the United States Transportation tragic.

First of all, many people who know better put a false face on the budget.  People in power claim that highway transportation has all the funding it needs.  After all, it comes from the “user tax,” the federal tax portion of the consumer cost of a gallon of gas at the pump, right?


Since 2008, $34 billion has had to come from the general fund to supplement the United States Highway Trust Fund.*  Money does come from the gallon gas tax and truck related taxes, but not enough to maintain current roadways and bridges and expand the highway system, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Gas consumption has decreased, but due to fuel efficient engines, roadways get more use relative to dollars received.
Revenues, therefore, will decline in the face of increasing maintenance costs and more demand for new roadways and corridors.

Add to this that the costs that new highway and infrastructure projects bring about are absent in calculating real costs of construction projects, such as air and water quality problems; farm and forest reductions; and home and business displacement.  

In 2008, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Baker, George Mitchell, Tom Daschle, and Bob Dole founded the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), to find practical solutions to public policy problems.  The National Transportation Policy Project, an offshoot of the bipartisan coalition, makes several judgments about national transportation policy.  One is that “U. S. transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results.” Also, “America’s transportation systems continue to fall short of meeting the multi-faceted demands increasingly placed on them---with collective costs to the economy, our quality of life, and the environment that can only grow over time.”

The National Transportation Policy Project has also recommended that states’ performance in complying with federal goals receive incentive dollars as they effectively spend according to those goals.

Current talk on the Hill from Senator Inhofe and Congressman John Mica call for reducing bike and pedestrian infrastructure money from 1.5% of the proposed transportation budget to 0.  No rhyme or reason to it, and no analysis needed.  Why?  Because road construction has had an aura of being sacrosanct without accounting for effective value received for federal transportation funds spent.  Consider the “road to nowhere” in Alaska, an allocation of $232 million for a bridge to an island populated by 50 people.  And, among some of the smug, political elite, bike and pedestrian equate to ‘fringe’ and ‘effete’.

Besides funding woes, roadway and bridge infrastructure in the U.S. suffers severely from lack of maintenance.
According to a study by the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), ”Fewer than 80 percent of the Interstate highways in America’s cities are in good condition, with the Interstates in America’s largest cities in greatest disrepair.”

Indiana alone had 1,927 structurally deficient bridges in 2009 (U.S. D.O.T., FHWA, December, 2009).  Poorer roadways account for increasingly greater percentages of the U. S. Highway System.   Maintenance for existing roads and bridges has hit deficit levels of spending, while the poor road conditions cost motorists in car repairs, safety, and delays.

Where will it all end?

Without a policy as to what the goals are for transportation, big gaps will occur in critical areas, while other transportation needs will get overfunded.
Whatever Congress decides around October 1 will direct U.S. transportation policy for the next six years, and uncritical planning now may create a far worse future situation than the nation now finds itself in.  The budget itself has been skating on extensions since 2009.

Roadways have changed our country and changed the world.  The U.S. Interstate System and the efficiencies it created made for the economic boom of the post WW II era. The visionary Eisenhower plan was to link the U.S.; investing in a system of roadways that would allow for the defense of the nation.  These and ancillary roadways made it easy to transport raw materials to manufacturers and products to market, producing the most expansive economy in the world.**  

Roadways lost planned purpose when, as a byproduct of the defense highway system, land developers exploited cheap land outside of cities along these arteries to create suburbs and malls.    Together with auto makers, road construction companies created a push for highways and roadways to an increasingly affluent, expanding populace fleeing cities and migrating to newly minted suburbs.

But times have changed, and our mentality has not.  Spending gets lavished on new highways and/or roadways to solve a “need” to connect developing areas. But no federal standards exist to assess whether or not renovation of or maintenance of existing infrastructure, creating bicycle and pedestrian corridors, or creating  rail or light rail lines fills the “need” more effectively and efficiently.

We can keep kidding ourselves that the real crisis in transportation and transportation funding will resolve itself, but it is not true.
Developing a good idea of what is needed makes far more sense than proliferating sloppy, poorly regulated, unfocused spending on car centric corridors.

And how about letting go of the current mindset?  Lobbied heavily by the highway construction industry as well as the automotive industry, the pervasive mantra of building more and more roadways that have no budgeted maintenance funding reflects the current, de rigeur, institutional thinking.

Why not consider green, less expensive, alternative bike and ped and rail and light rail lines that funnel people to needed destinations minus the high maintenance costs of new pavement?

While it may make luxurious proliferation of streets and roadways a thing of the past, considering urban networks of smaller scale commuting pathways for cyclists and pedestrians may force a needed increase in urban density and development of communities.  As an alternative to the mega mall concept of the recent past, creating intra urban pathways might create a need for local stores and local venues which could result in closer knit neighborhoods and diminished need for long distance travel.

Car makers and road builders who have championed more ribbons of highways, might start focusing on areas of light rail or innovative light vehicle corridors free from actual cars, diminishing the need for the more expensive-to-maintain streets, thoroughfares and highways that have contributed to this crisis.  Some roadways or parts of roadways could be converted to lighter motorized vehicle use, like scooters and bikes and segway type vehicles or even golf carts, to free up money for maintenance of bus/car/truck routes.

Current highways could find modified lanes for light vehicle traffic as an integral part of helping people to needed goods and services without breaking the bank.

The current crisis demands, realistically, some non political process that looks at transportation needs both current and long range, by experts, in order to secure the nation’s future prosperity.

Hoosier Rails to Trails proposes that Congress empower a permanent committee consisting of financiers, university-ties, transportation and urban planning experts,  and environmentalists to analyze infrastructure and present intelligent options to Congress.  Consider the following suggestions.

  • Vote on proposals made by the panel of experts.
  • Impose a moratorium on new roadways until infrastructure maintenance needs can be assessed.
  • Develop and implement a model for deciding transportation budget allocations, before the political decision making process begins.
  • Take seriously transportation studies on how people commute, before imposing “solutions.”
  • Discard the outmoded and calcified “build more roads” mind set.
  • Consider funding rail as an alternative where applicable.

Mario Vian, Policy Analyst

*U.S. PIRG report “Do Roads Pay for Themselves”, February, 2011, by Ryan Holeywell.
**”The Interstate Highway System  It’s (sic)Development, and It’s (sic) Effects on the American Spatial, Economic and Cultural Landscape”  Andrew Armbruster, April, 2005 (Eastern Michigan University)