It’s May 11th, the official start to National Transportation Week. I’m not going to lie by telling you all is hunky-dory regarding the condition that America’s transportation infrastructure is in. There is much that needs improving. The main sticking point, however, is funding: To make necessary improvements possible money has to come from somewhere. I explore some of the issues transportation infrastructure is facing and offer what I believe are reasonable solutions to help bring infrastructure improvement about as well as to get some pressing transportation problems solved.
A grossly inadequate funding allocation
On this 11th day of May, still no Congressional approval of even an extension of the current transportation funding allocation; on May 31st, MAP-21 (or the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) is due to expire. MAP-21 is a 2012 bill that authorized over multiple years funding for transportation. Compounding the issue, allocated roadway, bridge and transit Highway Trust Fund monies, as I’ve learned, are expected to dry up soon thereafter. The Highway Trust Fund is a federal investment of approximately $50 billion annually.
As for a long-term transportation funding package getting approved by May’s last day, one can always hope. Approval, meanwhile, of a long-term transportation funding allocation is long overdue and so, so desperately needed to help bring this country’s infrastructure up to snuff. Considering May 11th to May 15th is National Transportation Week 2015, that makes the entire situation all the more relevant.
And, along the way, proposed have been eliminating funding outright, increases in the gasoline tax, a mileage-based fee, expanding the use of tolling; take your pick.
Meanwhile, time, money, fuel wasted
A friend pointed out how in a solo-occupant vehicle with, say, 250 horses under the hood, much horsepower is wasted. Now, compared to a (electric) locomotive with say 5,000 horsepower pulling five passenger rail coaches each with 80 occupants for a total of 400 passengers, this breaks down to 12.5 horsepower per passenger which makes this method of moving people so much more efficient – 20 times more efficient than the automobile, in fact; that is, if the mathematical method I employed is correct.
Okay, so, suppose the same 250 horsepower car contains 4 occupants. That works out to 62.5 horsepower per person. An improvement, but the train is still more efficient.
Why I think the comparison is important is because passenger train use in this country is less (in 2014, 10.8 billion trips were taken on public transportation although that includes rail as well as non-rail modes) compared to automobile use (last year over 3 trillion vehicle travel miles were logged, this achieved from among a base of roughly 253 million vehicles composed of cars, light- and heavy-duty trucks). Coupled with annual congestion/gridlock and delay on account of that wasting, yes, wasting an estimated $101 billion worth of time and fuel, yearly, talk about a “what’s wrong with this picture?” moment!
With the relationship of motor vehicle trips to trips taken using public transit being approximately 95 to 5, the scales are obviously tipped in favor of roadway travel. Would more Americans changing their travel patterns thus creating a more level playing field, result in better or greater or improved transportation efficiencies overall? I think so.
For America’s transportation infrastructure are better days ahead?
So, here’s the rub. With an increasing population, the number of vehicle travel miles on the rise, and with public transit use seeing its highest ridership since 1957, to expect conditions regarding American transportation infrastructure – much of it the worse for wear by the way – to appreciably improve anytime soon without being given a serious infusion of cash over an extended period of time, is asking a bit much.
As for worn infrastructure that’s seen far better days, not all is a lost cause. The varying states of repair dictate what remedy is in order. In some instances deterioration is so extensive the infrastructure in question can no longer be saved or is worth saving. And, in even rarer cases, failures have resulted in out-and-out catastrophe. Again, it all comes down to funding.
So, what are the kinds of fixes that can be implemented to improve if not correct the deficit situation?
First, there is tolling. This is one way road-repair revenue can be raised. The difference between this method and using tax revenue to pay for work is that in the former the people who pay tolls are the people who use the roads. In the latter case, all who pay taxes are contributors, regardless of whether a user of the roadway infrastructure in question or not.
There is no law that I’m aware of that says the tax on gasoline can’t be raised. However, it may be difficult to get agreement to even go this route and, if agreement is reached, agreeing on what amount the increase of the tax should be, well, there is the possibility that that could complicate matters even more. Meanwhile, zero-emissions vehicles would be exempt and that has some crying foul. Another issue people can’t seem to agree on has to do with what amount of raised capital goes to roadways and what amount gets designated for railways/transit.
Okay, what about creating a vehicle miles traveled or VMT fee? The amount of driving determines what a driver’s contribution would be. A rate would have to be set.
On the transit side, employers could encourage employees to ride transit. Or they could provide workers with in-house transit services.
The obvious benefit of using public transportation is that the more people using such, the less wear-and-tear-roadway impact there is. And, the less roadway wear-and-tear, the farther maintenance dollars can go.
Besides that benefit, reduced roadway usage means lower air pollution impact as a result of fewer miles driven. In addition, associated with transit systems is pedestrian and bicycling activity, otherwise known as active transportation modes, not to mention the land around transit stations is typically built up, and that built environment can include in it office, retail, residential components and sometimes entertainment/sports venues as well.
Will Congress finalize a funding bill to put transportation on a proper course once more? I ask: Is there a better time than National Transportation Week to work toward and accomplish that end? I think not.
Department of corrections: It was originally stated that the Highway Trust Fund was due to expire on May 31st. The article has thus been revised to now include the corrected text.
– Alan Kandel
This post was last revised on Mar. 19, 2020 @ 7:17 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.