New tires add up. That's the finding of a report issued Wednesday by the American Society for Civil Engineers, which tallies up the cost of our decaying surface transportation infrastructure, from potholes to rusting bridges to buses that never come.
The engineers found that overall, the cost of failing to invest more in the nation's roads and bridges would total $3.1 trillion in lost GDP growth by 2020. For workers, the toll of investing only at current levels would be equally daunting: 877,000 jobs would also be lost. Already, the report found, deficient and deteriorating surface transportation cost us $130 billion in 2010.
By and large those costs would not come from the more dramatic failings of America's transportation system -- like the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minnesota -- but more mundane or even invisible problems. The minivan that hits a pothole chips away at a family's income. The clogged highway that drains away an extra half hour of a trucker's day also drives up the cost of shipping for businesses.
Congestion, the report found, is of particular cause for concern. Already, 40 percent of urban interstates have capacity deficiencies. Currently, that costs us $27 billion a year in lost time and other inefficiencies wasted on the roads. By 2020, that number could grow tenfold, reaching $276 billion a year.
The civil engineers are, by their own admission, a biased party -- they stand to gain the most from renewed investment in infrastructure -- but they paint a picture of an infrastructure shortfall that would have ripple effects far and wide through society.
Companies, the report estimates, would underperform by $240 billion over the next ten years without additional investment. Exporters, which would have trouble moving goods to market, would send $28 billion in trade less abroad. The cost to families' household budgets, the report suggests, would by $1,060 a year.
Underscoring the wider appeal of ASCE's argument, the report received the backing of both labor and business leaders.
"Today’s report from the American Society of Civil Engineers further reinforces that the U.S. is missing a huge opportunity to ignite economic growth, improve our global competitiveness, and create jobs," Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a release.
Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, said in a release that "with a modest increase in investment, we can rebuild a strong economy where business can thrive and workers can afford a place to live, raise a family, take an occasional vacation, pay for their children’s education and have a dignified retirement."
The ASCE claims the answer to the transportation problem is simple: Invest more, and quickly.
"The problems facing our nation's infrastructure are widely acknowledged and well understood," said Andrew Herrmann, the president-elect of the ASCE.
But that doesn't mean Congress is rushing to fix them. Re-authorization of the transportation bill that pays for most of our highways has stalled. The House Republican outline for a bill would slash one third of transportation funding. The idea behind cutting those funds is that private enterprise could fill the gap.
Further, gas taxes revenues, which have traditionally been used to pay for transportation funding, are falling because they aren't tied to inflation and more people are switching over to fuel-efficient cars. For conservatives, some sort of new tax is verboten, even though they might appreciate infrastructure's benefits to business.
But even the Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee is not satisfied with his transportation plan. He said he was forced to limit his spending plan because of the House GOP leadership's allergy to tax revenue.
"They wouldn't vote on a Mother's Day resolution if it had extra spending on it," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) told the Wall Street Journal.
David Goldberg, the communications director of Transportation for America, said part of the problem with finding new government funding for transportation lies with the fact that there are fewer new roads to be built. Much of what we need to do lies with fixing old highways.
"Maintenance and repair and upgrades are not as sexy as ribbon-cuttings on new projects," Goldberg said, "And there's a lot of political pressure many times to build new projects."
But beyond that, Goldberg would also like to see expanded access to mass transit. One surprising result of the ASCE report was that cost of deficiencies to Americans in bus transit alone would add up to $398 billion by 2020.
Scott Bernstein, the president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, said that while "the general argument that we need to not lose any more ground is sound," we should look more closely at what our infrastructure spending gets us.
"I think they missed the opportunity to talk about what people actually spend on transportation," Bernstein said. He said he thought inadequate spending on infrastructure, especially on mass transit, hurts poor families disproportionately.
"Simply spending it on maintaining highway capacity isn't likely to give people much more of a deal," Bernstein said.
The new report is agnostic on where we should direct new transportation money towards, if we ever decide to increasing spending at all. But ASCE does give a nod towards high speed rail, saying that:
Most of America's major economic competitors in Europe and Asia -- including Japan, Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain, as well as rapidly developing and developed countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea -- have already invested in and are reaping the benefits of improved competitiveness from their intermetropolitan high speed rail systems. Simply continuing to invest in the nation's existing transportation infrastructure may not be enough to maintain its standing in the global economy in the long run.
So far, Goldberg said, we're nowhere near looking at problems like that. "The big question is, can we come to any kind of agreement about what is worth investing in? And can we do it in a timely enough way to avoid the bills the engineers' report warns us of?"
Of course, decaying roads and bridges don't make everyone worse off. One of the report's few bright spots: The future looks good for auto repair shops, which are expected to see increased demand as our roads get worse.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of the ASCE president-elect. It is Andrew Herrmann, not Hanover.
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