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Quick Fix, and New Warning, on Roads

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—Congress has slapped another last-minute patch on U.S. transportation funding, continuing a pattern that has repeatedly brought road and bridge spending to the brink of depletion.

The House and Senate will now have through July 31 to address funding after the Senate's approval Saturday (May 23) of H.R. 2353, "Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015."

The vote came eight days before expiration of the current appropriation, called MAP-21. President Obama is expected to sign the bill by May 31.

Meanwhile, cries for a long-term solution are increasing on all sides, including from the House Republican who sponsored the latest legislation.

transportation funding
©iStock.com / DanCardiff

Congress will now have through July 31 to find a fix for transportation funding after the Senate passed a two-month extension Saturday morning.

The bill was introduced May 15 by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The House passed the measure May 19.

Rural Focus

As the debate, and the structural deterioration, continue, a new report highlights how the current spending is leaving America's rural systems in particular peril.

Shuster's home state has the dubious distinction of hosting the nation's highest percentage of structurally deficient rural bridges, according to the new report by the transportation research group known as TRIP (The Road Information Program).

"The economy of rural America rides on the quality and connectivity of the rural transportation system, which supports quality of life for the approximately 61 million Americans living in rural areas," the nonprofit reports in Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland, released May 19.

The report identifies states with the highest rate of rural pavements in poor condition, the highest share of structurally deficient rural bridges, and the highest fatality rates on rural roads.

1 in 5 Affected

About 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas, according to the report, which used the U.S. Census Bureau's definition of "rural areas" as regions outside urban areas with a population of 2,500 or more.

A total of 66 cities with a population of 50,000 or more do not have direct access to the Interstate Highway System, according to the report. Just 60 percent of rural counties have public transportation, with "very limited service" in nearly half of those counties, increasing the demand on the public roads.

TRIP

Rural roads and bridges have "significant deficiencies," the report said. Pavement on 15 percent of rural roads is in poor condition, and more than one-fifth of the bridges need repair or replacement.

Among the report's key points:

  • The quality of life in small communities relies heavily on the quality of the transportation system.
  • America's rural transportation system provides the first and last link in the supply chain from farm to market; supports the tourism industry; and enables the production of energy, food and fiber.
  • The quality of the nation's highway systems plays a critical role in providing access to tourist destinations, particularly scenic parks and recreational areas in rural areas.
  • Travel loads on rural roads are increasing dramatically, due to the booming energy extraction sector and increased production of renewable energy.

"The potential for additional economic growth in many rural areas is being impeded by the failure to significantly modernize the nation's rural transportation system and provide for adequate connectivity," the report said.

Challenges: Connectivity, Safety

"America must adopt transportation policies that improve rural transportation connectivity, safety and conditions to provide the nation's small communities and rural areas with a level of safe and efficient access that will support quality of life and enhance economic productivity," the report said.

Many rural communities face increased reliance on trucking for freight movement because of the abandonment of over 100,000 miles of rail lines in recent decades, according to the report.

TRIP cited a previous report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that found that connectivity is particularly poor in rural parts of Western states because of the distance between interstate highways and the lack of adequate rail service.

Rural roads have a traffic fatality rate nearly three times higher than all other roads, due to a lack of roadway safety features, higher travel speeds and inconsistent design features.

The report called out numerous roadway safety improvements, including installing rumble strips, improving lane markings and roadway alignment, and adding intermittent passing lanes.

'Significant Deficiencies'

Rural roads, highways and bridges have "significant deficiencies," the report found. Pavement on 15 percent of rural roads is in poor condition, and over one-fifth of rural bridges need rehabilitation, repair or replacement, it said.

Rep. Bill Shuster
Official photo

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and sponsor of H.R. 2353, said the short-term fix is necessary to get to the long-term transportation bill the nation needs. His state leads the U.S. in percentage of structurally deficient rural bridges.

Topping the list of states with the greatest percentage of major rural roads in poor condition in 2013 were Michigan (37 percent), Rhode Island (32 percent), Hawaii and Idaho (both with 31 percent), and Kansas (30 percent).

In 2014, 11 percent of rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient, and 10 percent were rated as functionally obsolete, according to the report. States with the highest share of structurally deficient rural bridges included Pennsylvania (25 percent), Rhode Island (23 percent), Iowa (22 percent), South Dakota (21 percent), and Oklahoma (19 percent).

The TRIP report cited the "2015 AASHTO Transportation Bottom Line Report," which found that annual investment in roads, highways and bridges needed to increase from $88 billion to $120 billion; the public transit systems need an increase from $17 billion to $43 billion.

According to AASHTO's report, the current backlog in needed road, highway and bridge improvements is $740 billion.

Latest Funding Fix

According to Shuster, the short-term fix is necessary to get to the long-term surface transportation bill the nation is calling for.

Shuster explained that no new spending or transfers of funding are necessary for the extension. The Highway Trust Fund, expected to run dry in July, relies on the federal gas tax for its funding.

(Last year, the Department of Transportation started posting exactly how much money was left in the Highway Trust Fund, predicting it would go broke by August 2014.)

"The American people want a long-term transportation bill, our businesses want it, and I am confident that there's a strong will in Congress to get it done," Shuster said after the House passed his measure.

"This measure simply allows us to continue funding our surface programs through the end of July, while our work continues on a fiscally responsible solution to closing the shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and providing the long-term certainty required to make the investments that will strengthen and repair our roads and bridges."

Association Disappointment

AASHTO expressed its desire to see a long-term solution come to fruition.

"We are disappointed and frustrated" by the two-month measure, said Bud Wright, executive director of AASHTO.

"This two-month extension is a reflection of the inability of Congress to fund a long-term surface transportation bill, which has caused uncertainty among our members.

"State DOTs are already postponing construction projects this year because they can't count on federal fund to be there. Millions of dollars that should be flowing into communities, creating jobs and paying for projects to improve safety and mobility aren't being funded," Wright said.

© iStock.com / dan_prat

In more than six years, Congress has resorted to a temporary patch 33 times to keep transportation programs running, according to the Associated Press.

(The American Road & Transportation Builders Association said in September 2014 that uncertainty over the future of the Highway Trust Fund was partially to blame for a 14 percent decline in state and local government awards for highway and bridge work in the first half of 2014.)

The American Society of Civil Engineers also chimed in on the short-term patch.

"It is disappointing that Congress failed in the 10 months since the last extension to find a sustainable funding source for a multiyear transportation bill," said Robert D. Stevens, Ph.D., PE, president of ASCE.

"We hope that by setting a short-fuse July deadline, Congress will avoid another lull into complacency, and they will truly feel the urgency and have the resolve to properly fix the backbone of our nation's economy."

33 Temporary Fixes

Obama signed the $105 billion, 27-month "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act" (MAP-21) in July 2012. At that time, it had been seven years since the U.S. had a long-term highway and transit authorization bill. MAP-21 averted a 10th extension of the 2005 surface transportation authorization act known as SAFETEA-LU.

In more than six years, Congress has resorted to a temporary patch 33 times to keep transportation programs running, according to the Associated Press. Twelve of those bills were specific to highway and transit programs; 21 were for more general measures to keep the Department of Transportation and other government agencies open.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the short-term fix is "no way to run a government" during a press briefing Friday (May 22).

Earlier this year, the Obama Administration proposed a six-year, $478 billion surface transportation plan that included $317 billion for roads and bridges, an increase of almost 29 percent over the current investment.

The spending bill was a retooled version of the GROW AMERICA Act, a four-year Administration proposal that fell short last year.

"[T]he President has routinely and consistently indicated a willingness to try to find a bipartisan common ground about the best way to ensure that we're making the necessary investments in our infrastructure," Earnest said.

"But if what all Congress can do is pass a short-term extension, we're hopeful that members of Congress will use that short-term extension to negotiate something longer term."

   

Tagged categories: AASHTO; American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Funding; Government; Laws and litigation; North America; President Obama; Program/Project Management; Research; Roads/Highways; Transportation

Comment from Mark Puckett, (5/27/2015, 1:24 PM)

and any of this is surprising?..considering the constraints and incredible costs added by federal agencies its little wonder they dont have the funding nor even the ability on many state levels to contend with the hoops demanded


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