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America Needs New Vision for Transportation Network

Sat December 30, 2006 - Midwest Edition
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The U.S. transportation construction industry has a bold new vision to help address America’s surface transportation challenges and the federal government must continue to play a key role in ensuring a safe and efficient national road network in the post-Interstate Highway System era. That’s the message the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) delivered Nov. 16 to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.

Mike Walton, 2006 ARTBA chairman and the Ernest H. Cockrell “Centennial Chair in Engineering” at the University of Texas, testified on ARTBA’s behalf at a commission hearing in New York City called to discuss the current conditions, future needs and financing alternatives for the nation’s transportation system. The commission was established under provisions in the 2005 highway and transit law, known as SAFETEA-LU.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population is expected to reach 400 million people by 2043. This reality will have serious consequences for the future mobility of motorists, ARTBA testified.

“Between now and 2043 based on current highway investment and usage trends, U.S. highway capacity will only grow nine percent, but traffic levels will balloon by 135 percent to more than 7 trillion vehicle miles traveled annually,” Walton said. “As a result the average motorist can expect to spend 160 hours stuck in traffic delays, or the equivalent of four weeks each year — a 112 hour per year increase in lost time from the current level.”

The movement of freight also will be greatly impeded by inadequate transportation capacity.

Walton cited a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report showing that bottlenecks are causing trucks more than 243 million hours of delay annually, at a cost of approximately $8 billion.

“If the U.S. economy grows at a conservative annual rate of 2.5 to 3 percent over the next 20 years, domestic freight tonnage will almost double and the volume of freight moving through the largest international gateways may triple or quadruple,” the FHWA report said.

“Without new strategies to increase capacity, congestion at freight bottlenecks on highways may impose an unacceptably high cost on the nation’s economy and productivity.”

In the short-term, the federal Highway Trust Fund is facing a severe cash crisis and maintaining surface transportation investment levels in the future is in serious doubt, Walton told the commission.

To address these needs now and ensure there are sufficient resources to maintain current conditions, Congress should be looking seriously at all options to generate new revenues for highway, bridge and transit improvements, including an increase in the federal motor fuels tax, the ARTBA chairman said.

In the long-term, America needs a new national strategy to facilitate the efficient and secure movement of people and freight, Walton said.

He shared with the commission a plan approved last September by the ARTBA board of directors that recommends revising the structure of the federal surface transportation program to consist of two separate, but equally important components:

• The current highway and transit programs must be significantly better funded through the existing user fee structure and reformed to address future safety and mobility priorities. They should focus attention and resources on upgrading and protecting the nation’s enormous past investments in surface transportation infrastructure.

• The federal government must initiate a new program, funded with new, “fire-walled” freight-related user fee mechanisms that over the next 25 years will greatly expand the capacity of the nation’s intermodal transportation network. Its centerpiece would be the initiation of a well-funded “Critical Commerce Corridors (3C) Program” aimed at improving U.S. freight movement and emergency response capabilities.

“The result of this initiative would be a national strategy directed at the growing dilemma of efficiently moving freight,” Walton said. “This challenge is about more than congestion, bottlenecks and delayed deliveries. It is about securing America’s place in the global competitive market. If we fail to act in a meaningful way, our position as world economic leader may be at risk.

“The nation’s transportation obstacles are not insurmountable. Unfortunately, however, we are out of easy answers. We must utilize all available options to meet these needs and we must do so in a holistic manner that capitalizes on the synergy from all the pieces of our surface transportation infrastructure network. The federal government is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role, not only in promoting alternatives, but in delivering tangible resources and direction to meet the nation’s transportation needs.”

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