Can Congress fix our crumbling roads and bridges?

Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx urged lawmakers to pass a $478-billion funding measure to shore up our transportation infrastructure, which experts agree is in dire need of modernization.

John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye/AP
A semi-trailer heads east across the Mount Pleasant Street viaduct, on April 28, in Burlington, Iowa. The Burlington City Council learned on Monday the viaduct is in need of repair and soon traffic will be limited to less than 22-ton vehicles.

When discussing the state of America's roads, bridges, and transit systems, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx doesn't mince words. 

We ought to be embarrassed as a country,” he said after an appearance at a Metrorail station in northern Virginia on Friday, according to The Hill. 

“We just ought to be embarrassed that we have potholes in this country that aren’t filled; we have bridges that are crumbling; we have roads that need to be done; we have transit systems that are in a state of disrepair and others that we could be expanding; and we’re twisting in the wind,” said Mr. Foxx, who urged Congress to pass the White House's proposed six-year, $478 billion transportation funding bill.

Foxx's assessment agrees with those engineers who have examined America's infrastructure, but so far, lawmakers have been reluctant to commit the funds that experts say are necessary to bring it up to standard.

In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) published a report card on the nation's infrastructure, and the grades were poor. Dams, levees, roads, drinking water, wastewater disposal, and school buildings all earned D's or worse. Bridges and railways got a C+, and ports got a C. The highest grade went to solid waste disposal, which earned a B-. Overall, the ASCE gave America a of D+ on infrastructure.

Fixing it won't be cheap. The ASCE estimates that modernizing and maintaining our existing infrastructure would cost at least $3.6 trillion by the year 2020. 

This week is the third annual National Infrastructure Week in Washington, D.C., where eighty representatives from the business, labor, and public policy world will host more than forty events to raise awareness of the dangers of long-term neglect.

“We want to put a huge spotlight on the need to increase the investment in infrastructure," Marcia Hale, President of Building America’s Future, said in an email exchange with the Christian Science Monitor. "Our economic competitiveness and quality of life both suffer if we fail to improve neglected infrastructure our country grapples with.”

The benefits of infrastructure improvement are usually not immediately felt, so it is often difficult to convince lawmakers, whose attention may be focused on their next election bid, to provide more than temporary patches. 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter analyzes the reasons behind Congress's apparent lack of urgency:

Change requires a vision of the future sufficiently compelling that people will overcome inertia and support investment. Change requires an awareness of common fate – that everyone shares a piece of the suffering but can benefit from contributing to improvements.

American strengths in innovation and entrepreneurship offer numerous possibilities for upgrading infrastructure, and the transportation sector numerous possibilities for exciting business investments, if leaders see the future. [...]

Unless there’s strong public will that translates into votes, a Congress elected every two years can’t be expected to rally behind raising taxes to pay for big projects, despite the certainty that red states’ bridges can crumble as readily as blue states’.

The public will might be there, but the votes are not. In Michigan, voters rejected a bipartisan ballot measure by a 4 to 1 margin that would have raised the state's sales tax, gas tax, and automobile-registration tax to pay for roads, bridges, transit, and schools, as well as funding municipal governments and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Analysts say that many voters rejected the proposal due to its complexity.

If the political incentive to fix America's infrastructure does materialize, where do we begin?

Ms. Hale says that replenishing the Highway Trust Fund would be a good place to start because it would directly affect the greatest number of people. The primary source of funding for roadways has neared insolvency in the past few years, the Department of Transportation reports. 

“The most immediate benefit would come from replenishing the Highway Trust Fund," writes Hale. "Congress has the opportunity to do that, and they should do that, quickly. All states and communities rely on the Highway Trust Fund to build and maintain our transportation systems.”

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