No free bridges

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"We know how to build and repair roads to last longer, but it requires a greater investment up front. Given the fact that urban travel continues to increase, we must act now to build better roads to accommodate such an increase in travel." --William Wilkins, executive director, The Road Information Program (TRIP).


The worst thing about the horror show going on in Minnesota is that it never had to happen. Never.


Read William Wilkins' words one more time up there. He wrote those in 2004 -- three years ago now -- as part of TRIP's ongoing, yet ultimately never quite successful, effort to wake up government at all levels (as well as the general public) to the danger posed by our deteriorating highway infrastructure. I've written countless stories over the past decade myself tracking the long retreat from adequate highway funding, as both the states and the federal government redirected tax monies elsewhere.


For example, take a step back in time with me again to 2004 and look at figures compiled by the Build Indiana Council (BIC), a coalition of over 500 companies representing the transportation construction industry. Indiana's state highway construction program went from over $770 million dollars in 2004 down to nearly $300 million in 2006, with projections to remain around $500 million for subsequent years. Yet the Indiana Department of Transportation's (INDOT) own long range plan warned that it needed investment levels of $1 billion by 2007 and $1.4 billion by 2011 to meet their planned construction programs.


In addition, BIC said local roads and bridges across the state face dire problems without the funding to address them. There are nearly 3,700 local bridges that are structurally deficient or obsolete, and close to 90% of county pavements are considered rough by industry standards. Local governments need an additional $200 million annually over the next decade simply to address these problems, the group noted.


According to TRIP‘s research, one out of four of the nation‘s major metropolitan roads - interstates, freeways and other critical local routes - have pavements in poor condition, resulting in rough rides and costing the average urban motorist $400 annually in additional vehicle operating costs.


At the same time, overall travel on urban roads increased by 35% from 1990 to 2002, with large commercial truck traffic growing at 51% over the same time period. TRIP warned that overall vehicle travel is expected to increase by approximately 42% and heavy truck traffic by 49% by the year 2020, requiring more road construction funds to handle that extra volume.


Before the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, the arguments about highway funding were going up another notch as many states -- Pennsylvania chief among them -- sought to lease their toll roads to the private sector as a way to generate the extra funds necessary for road and bridge repair. That controversial plan, of course, raised a lot of ire both among truckers and regular motorists, who felt their fuel tax money should already be taking care of the problem. Perhaps the biggest beef trucking has about fuel taxes is that half the states put that revenues in their general funds -- meaning it's NOT reserved for highway repairs and construction.


Now, of course, this is all going to change -- bridge inspections are going on all over the country at a furious rate, and politicians are falling all over themselves to get on TV and declare that more road funding is imminent. All too late, of course, for however many people ended up dying when the I-35 bridge collapsed.


(The toll is at five now, but is still expected to rise as divers examine the cars the fell to the bottom of the Mississippi River. My heart and prayers go out to all the families that lost loved ones in this calamity.)


We've got to get two things through our collective thick skulls: that our highways and bridges are in poor shape and that it will take a lot of time and money to correct the problem. That also means we as a nation must stop taking our highway system for granted. For example, in my neck of the woods, lawsuits held up plans to replace the crumbling Woodrow Wilson I-95 highway bridge spanning the Potomac river for YEARS as people argued over the size of the bridge, how high it should be, and the 'noise impact' construction would have on the local community. All while a bridge built in the late 1960s literally crumbled under traffic volumes it was never designed to handle.


We should have taken the repair needs of our bridges and highways more seriously, but we didn't -- it took a catastrophe that robbed people of their lives to wake us up. That's the real tragedy here.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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