Building safer roads

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The price of driver error should not be death. We can and must make our roadways safer. That will be our goal as we look to the reauthorization of the federal-aid highway program.” –Henry A. Ross, chairman, American Traffic Safety Services Association.

As the Obama administration gears up to lavish some $1 trillion in federally-borrowed money on infrastructure projects nationwide, an interesting wrinkle is being touted for vehicle highway and bridge projects in line for funding.

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According to the newly-founded Roadway Infrastructure Safety Coalition (RISC), evidence suggests that roadway infrastructure plays a role in as much as one third of the deaths that occur every year. We’re talking about over 13,300 lives here out of the average of 40,000 killed in highway crashes annually in this country.

The four groups that formed the RISC – namely, the American Highway Users Alliance (Highway Users), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) and the National Association of County Engineers (NACE) – believes roadway safety infrastructure improvements via the federal legislative, regulatory and budgetary process can save a lot of lives if done properly.

“In our communities, each of us knows about dangerous roads and intersections that can be reengineered to save lives,” noted Greg Cohen, president and CEO of the Highway Users group. “The safety problems on these inadequate roads contribute to the $231 billion annual societal cost of traffic accidents. It is time for our federal officials to take action to address these problems.”

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Part of the issue, according to ASCE President D. Wayne Klotz, is that existing highway infrastructure is poorly designed from a safety perspective to begin with. In 2005, he said U.S. roads received an unflattering grade of “D,” as indicated in ASCE’s comprehensive “Report Card for America's Infrastructure” review. “That indicates there is room for improvement,” Klotz said.

The question to really be answer, though, is whether the American public is willing to pay for these kinds of billion-dollar improvements. Apparently – if the polls are right – they are (until the bills start coming due, of course … but that’s for another blog post my friends!)

According to a poll conducted by Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research on behalf of the “Building America’s Future” coalition (yet ANOTHER infrastructure lobbying organ! Amazing!) widespread and bipartisan support exists for smart infrastructure investment with accountability measures. Key findings include:

• 94 percent of Americans are concerned about the nation's infrastructure.

• 81 percent of Americans are prepared to pay 1 percent more in taxes to rebuild America's infrastructure.

• Accountability is the voter’s single highest priority (61 percent) in rebuilding America's infrastructure.

• Regarding infrastructure spending, Americans care most that projects are on time and on budget (31 percent), and that they can see exactly where the money is being spent (24 percent).

• Americans understand that infrastructure isn't just roads and highways. Indeed, energy facilities are their highest priority. Roads and highways score second, clean water is third.

Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell (D) – the co-chair of “Building America's Future” – said this survey confirms what many in government believe: that the American public understands the importance of investing in a broad range of infrastructure, from the energy grid to roads and transit to clean water and they understand why infrastructure is so important to them in their daily lives.

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“But the public is demanding strong accountability, transparency and oversight of any new investments in infrastructure,” Governor Rendell said. "They want us to set national priorities in infrastructure investment that improve people's lives, their communities and our economy. They would rather see us take the time to pick the right investments, rather than rush ahead with the same old projects.”

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California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) added that now is the perfect time to put money into public-works projects because it will help create jobs while pumping up the U.S. economy. “It’s like hitting two homeruns with one swing,” he explained. “This poll confirms that infrastructure is a priority to all Americans, and that they are willing to invest in their own quality of life.”

“The numbers don’t lie: a majority of Americans want to invest in building up our nation's infrastructure, but they want to know that their money is being spent wisely,” stressed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “They want the government to clean up its act and take responsibility for both success and failure. Any investment made must have benchmarks attached so that we can evaluate what is getting done and what opportunities are being squandered.”

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So we’ve got a push for safer roads and more of them – all with heavily borrowed money of course. THAT particular problem must addressed sooner rather than later as the federal deficit lurches towards the $12 trillion mark on the all-too-close horizon. These investment plans, too, must pass Congressional muster – a body that’s proved all too willing in the not-so-distant past to siphon funds off for pet projects.

One thing is for certain – all this gets shifted into high gear next week as Barack Obama gets sworn in as the 44th President of these United States. That’s when the dollar figures start to coalesce into reality.

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