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Today marks the expiration of the nation’s surface transportation law. The five-year law spent nearly $300 billion in taxpayer funds to build and maintain the nation’s roads and public transportation. Looking at the results, it’s hard to see the money as well spent.
The last truly transformative transportation bill was President’s Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act, which set out an ambitious vision to connect America’s major cities through the highway system. That vision was achieved with the completion of the system nearly two decades ago.
Since then, our transportation system has gone adrift. It has become an obstacle to economic efficiency and improved quality of life. Consider that each year commuters waste the equivalent of almost an entire work week stuck in traffic. Transportation costs have grown to almost 20 percent of average household spending and cars and trucks currently account for two-thirds of America’s dependence on oil. Cars, trucks, and planes account for 45% of Washington state’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is by far the largest source of climate changing gases.
Nationwide, over seventy thousand federal bridges remain rated as “structurally deficient.” While Washington rates better on this front than most states, problems remain. Out of 7, 651 bridges in Washington owned by the federal government, 400 have been rated as structurally deficient. WSDOT has rated 142 state-owned bridges as structurally deficient. Of those, half are scheduled for replacement or repair.
To answer these growing concerns, the goal of the next transportation bill should be to build and support more energy-efficient ways to travel. The system should be innovative, with high speed rail line connecting robust transit systems in major cities. It should also be practical, with emphasis placed on returning our aging roads and bridges to a state of good repair.
Americans are ready for a change. Record numbers ride public transportation, like light rail, commuter rail and rapid buses. A majority of Americans say they’d take public transportation if it were easily available where they live and work. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that improving public transit and building communities that require less driving are the best solutions for reducing traffic, while only 21 percent still believe that building new roads is the best solution.
An extension to the transportation act will fund the current dysfunctional system in the short term, but it will do nothing to bring about needed change. The established road lobby and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are vying for a substantial gas tax increase to fund a bigger version of the mess we have now. Wall Street is touting schemes for privatized toll roads. But Congress should commit no new money without major reforms that would focus spending to address America’s long-term needs.
When Congress finally turns its attention to the next transportation bill, it should take the lead from bills in the U.S. House and Senate that would establish “National Transportation Objectives” and target future spending to develop a cleaner, more efficient system. The House bill would seek to reduce the number of miles American’s drive, while tripling trips on public transit, bicycles, or walking. It contains achievable goals to reduce air pollution and consumer transportation costs, repairing roads and bridges, and provide better transit access for seniors, the disabled and people with low incomes.
Deep change in the way America funds transportation won’t happen on its own. The first step is committing to goals for what change needs to happen.
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