U.S. infrastructure is deplored

Engineers' appraisal fuels Senate hunt for more funding

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The nation has gone backward in the last four years from an already sorry performance in maintaining vital infrastructure, a national engineers group reported yesterday.

"America's infrastructure rates a cumulative grade of D," the American Society of Civil Engineers said, citing delayed maintenance and chronic underfunding of roads, bridges, transit, dams, aviation and other infrastructure.

The organization issued its comprehensive 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure yesterday as a U.S. Senate committee wrestled with ways to come up with more funding, including Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal for a federal capital budget funded by borrowing.

The organization said surface transportation and aviation systems have declined since its last report card in 2005, with aviation and public transit falling from D+ to D and roads from D to D-.

"Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost to the economy of $78.2 billion, or $710 per motorist," the report said. "Poor conditions cost motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs."

The group estimated that $2.2 trillion must be spent in the next five years to restore the nation's infrastructure to good condition. "Current spending amounts to only about half of the needed investment," it said.

The organization's president, D. Wayne Klotz, said spending more money on infrastructure "is important, but the solution will involve more than just money. It will take sound technology, wise community planning and involved citizens willing to partner with the government and private sector to make real change."

The report was cited frequently at a hearing yesterday in Washington, D.C., of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee attended by Mr. Rendell and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. While the parties generally agreed on the need for increased infrastructure spending, they disagreed on how to raise the money.

Mr. Rendell said current federal funding levels won't allow states to tackle big new transportation projects. "It's impossible to do anything but fixing, repairing, maintaining," he said.

He said the federal governments should, like state and local governments, adopt a capital budget with borrowing that spreads the cost of projects over 20 or 30 years "instead of all up front."

He called for creation of a national infrastructure bank that could leverage private investment and would choose projects for funding based on merit, rather than the politics-driven earmarking process now in place.

"I think the American people will support common-sense infrastructure investment," Mr. Rendell said.

He said he supports an increase in the federal gasoline tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993, but said that was only part of the solution.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was "averse" to raising the gasoline tax and cool to the idea of abandoning a pay-as-you-go system of funding transportation improvements.

With Congress set this year to fashion a new multiyear transportation funding bill, Mr. LaHood said "there's a very strong commitment from President [Barack] Obama to put everything on the table, see what ideas stick, what makes sense."

But on a federal gas tax increase, he said: "That's off the table right now" because of "hard economic times."

Ms. Boxer noted that the federal stimulus legislation provided $48 billion for transportation improvements, including $27.5 billion for highways, that she said would improve infrastructure and create jobs.

The bill "was a good start, but it is not enough. We must have continued investment to maintain these jobs, and to make additional, needed improvements to our transportation infrastructure," she said.

"It is important to note that the $27.5 billion for highways in [the] stimulus is in no way a substitute for the hundreds of billions needed to address our nation's infrastructure crisis," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.

"Transportation and infrastructure are not all that complicated," said Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent.

"The bottom line is ... if you allow your infrastructure to deteriorate year after year after year, you don't put funding into it, you know what? It's going to get worse. And that is precisely what we have done as a nation.

"The irony is it costs more to rebuild crumbling infrastructure than to simply maintain it. We have been really dumb and we have wasted enormous sums of money.

"We are going to have a great debate on how we raise the money, but we must raise that money."


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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