Our highway bridges and roads are in sorry shape — and getting sorrier by the day. Recommendations are pouring in from all sides on how to fix the problem — plans from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), mayors, governors, think tanks, you name them — and all of them come with big, fat price tags.
The problem is that while we debate the worthiness of these repair packages — the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) fixes the cost to repair or modernize the country's bridges at $140 billion, assuming all the bridges were fixed immediately — they're merely a Band-Aid for the real issue: we have no national transportation strategy.
You can fix all the bridges and the roads, but that money may as well be poured down a rat hole for all the good it'll do unless we start giving some serious thought to how we organize urban and suburban lifestyles alongside freight shipping needs.
Look, despite living in a 24/7 world, hooked up to the Internet, BlackBerrys and whatnot for instant communication and information download, urban and suburban residents still deal with what should be a charming antiquity by now: the “rush hour.”
The bold fact, though, is that many of the people in those cars choking up the highways for longer and longer intervals simply don't need to be there. But they are there because public transportation has many times proved not only inconsistent, slow and expensive, it simply doesn't go where folks need to go. Take Washington, D.C., for example. All the mass transit options are designed to bring people from the suburbs downtown and back home again. Now, however, many more people commute suburb to suburb.
Rural communities, of course, have completely different transportation needs for which the motor vehicle provides the only logical solution. I mean, can you even imagine light rail being proposed as a way for farmers to get from their cornfields into town?
Yet that dynamic turns on its head again when we look at freight shipments. You can have all the railroads you want, but you'll always need trucks to get stuff to and from the rails — the first and last mile the shipment travels — aside from those areas where rail simply doesn't go.
So before we start using thousand dollar bills to cure the ailments of our roads and bridges, let's come up with a rock-solid plan as to where that money should be spent, along with a plan to keep our highway infrastructure in better shape than we've been doing.
“For decades, reams of engineering analysis and reports have highlighted the deteriorating nature of our infrastructure and the costs of remediation — costs that increase exponentially as every year passes,” says Barry LePatner, founder of New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP and author of a new book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry.
“Every politician has received these reports. Most push them aside for a successor to handle, or agree to provide only a fraction of the necessary funds requested by their experts,” he says. “As a result, the problem has snowballed to staggering proportions. It's time for our nation's politicians to be honest with the public about just how bad the infrastructure situation is. That means acknowledging that many of our state roads and bridges are in desperate shape.”
Time for a plan, he says. Amen to that.