Pittsburgh’s pothole penalty

Congressional inaction on transportation funding costs us lives, jobs and money, writes a union leader

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Call it the pothole penalty — the lost lives, injuries and $1,481 a year that Pittsburgh motorists pay on average due to congressional inaction on a new highway bill. Until Congress acts, the pothole penalty will get worse and worse.

Federal transportation officials predict that the flow of money from the Highway Trust Fund, which provides the largest share of state and local resources for roads, will begin to dry up at the end of this summer. Without congressional action, the fund will cease dispersing money altogether on Oct. 1.

In Pittsburgh, the crunch already has begun. And inadequate federal transportation support would reverse the gains state lawmakers made by approving a transportation funding bill that added needed revenue for fixing structurally deficient bridges and roads. For Pennsylvania and states across the country, the congressional stalemate couldn’t come at a worse time.

The average bridge in the United States is 45 years old, dangerously close to the average lifespan of 50 years. A fourth of bridges are deficient or obsolete. In fact, while most don’t get the publicity of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota or the I-5 collapse in Washington, an average of 25 bridges a year collapse in the United States.

In addition to deaths, injuries and serious infrastructure failure, this neglect by Congress interrupts our daily lives and costs every motorist. According to the transportation research firm TRIP, poor road conditions contribute to a third of traffic fatalities. Almost half the roads in the urban parts of the Pittsburgh region are in poor or mediocre condition, which likely contributes to the some 1,300 traffic fatalities a year around here, in addition to the $1,481 a year in damage to cars, additional vehicle operating costs, lost time and wasted fuel.

Lack of action threatens serious economic damage as well. The construction industry remains fragile from the Great Recession, which sent unemployment rates soaring to above 25 percent for construction workers. Should transportation construction slow or come to a halt, economists predict the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. On the other hand, if Congress finds the courage to act and passes a strong, long-term highway bill, experts say 2 million jobs a year could be created.

No one, including members of Congress, should be surprised that we find ourselves on the verge of a crisis. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax, which goes entirely to transportation projects through the Highway Trust Fund, has not been adjusted for 21 years. Since that time, the value of the tax has declined by about 40 percent as construction-material costs have risen and new vehicles use less fuel.

There are many options to provide resources to stop our critical transportation infrastructure from crumbling, ranging from public-private partnerships to alternatives to the gas tax. But Congress should recognize the crisis and reach for the tested and reliable solution — and right now that is to raise the gas tax, which has provided a dedicated stream of transportation investments for generations.

While the thought of adjusting the gas tax creates tremors of trepidation for many in Congress, some representatives have taken up the call. Rep.just it to inflation after that until it expires in 10 years. This would allow policy makers and elected leaders time to develop alternative resources. Those three nickels would entirely bridge the gap for the trust fund and prevent deficit spending to shore up the fund.

Despite the fears of many elected leaders, raising the gas tax and adjusting it for inflation won’t cost them their jobs. Public opinion surveys consistently show that if the gas tax goes for its intended purpose of fixing potholes, roads and bridges, strong majorities would support an increase. The most recent poll by the Mineta Transportation Institute shows 67 percent of Americans would back an increase under those conditions.

A 15-cent adjustment to the gas tax has won the support of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, in part because construction workers’ jobs depend on it, but also because their families depend on a safe transportation system just like everyone else. Organizational support for securing the Highway Trust Fund with a 15-cent increase is as broad as public support — groups from the AAA to the Chamber of Commerce favor it.

For too long Congress has adopted a duct-tape approach to transportation infrastructure investment, sticking the rest of us with a pothole penalty. Congress should get in line with the public and take the logical first step to prevent more loss of life and further decline of our roads and bridges by passing a modest increase in the gas tax.

Phillip Ameris is business manager for the Western Pennsylvania District Council of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

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