Can Grow America Act Deal With Challenges of Aging, Underfunded Transportation System?

 “The road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain't nowhere else it can go — right?”

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

On March 31, the Detroit Economic Club hosted a discussion titled “Beyond Traffic” by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Secretary Foxx introduced the Obama administration’s blueprint for updating America’s transportation network, including roads, bridges, rail and airports.

Currently, short-term and inconsistent funding of transportation projects has put more than $1 billion of projects across the U.S. on hold and the country’s overall infrastructure grade is a D+.

The 60th anniversary of Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 is next year. In too many places, the highways it built and much of the post-war infrastructure have reached obsolescence and decrepitude, attributable to age and deferred maintenance. I reported earlier about the economic threats related to poor infrastructure. Michigan residents suffer with the state of their own infrastructure, as voters contemplate a statewide referendum to raise money for repairs to roads and bridges.

Foxx identified some trends that add to the challenges of an aging and underfunded transportation system:

• Population growth continues unabated with an estimated 70 million more Americans expected by 2045 — all of whom will be adding to already congested transportation systems.

• Transportation related to moving freight will increase by 60 percent by 2045.

• The population is aging and will continue to do so, resulting in a greater need for infrastructure to assist them.

• Despite need for added infrastructure, revenues allocated to transportation have actually decreased and there is a $92 billion shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund.

• Climate disruption has wreaked havoc on roads and other sensitive infrastructure, causing deterioration.

• Environmental review processes require duplicative studies and analysis that result in delayed projects.

In order to address the current state of transportation infrastructure and future trends, the administration has proposed the Grow America Act. First, it seeks to remove the problem of short-term budgets by allocating $478 billion over the next six years to be paid for by recovering some of the $2 trillion of untaxed foreign earnings by US companies (known in policy circles a “repatriation”). The money will go primarily to repair and improve roads ($317 billion) and expand transit systems and other transportation options ($115 billion). It also provides money for workforce training, improvements towards freight, attracting private investments, air travel improvements, competitive grants and rail investments.

The proposed act will also make some policy changes. It envisions greater authority and involvement of local and regional planning for transportation priorities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will get more authority to respond to acute hazards when an imminent threat to public health exists. Projects will be subject to expedited approvals in some cases.

How much traction the administration’s proposal will get remains to be seen. So far, the dysfunction in Congress has resulted in stop-gap measures and short-term funding, which has only exacerbated current conditions. However, the deteriorating infrastructure is developing into a bipartisan issue, driven by constituents facing potholes, auto repairs and ever-increasing commutes. As an advanced infrastructure is an engine of economic development, Congressional Democratic and Republican members could conceivably reach agreement on this, if nothing else.

Jack Kerouac wrote his Beat Generation novel about travels across the United States in the years after World War II. America’s growing highway system provided the means by which Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty experienced their adventures and contemplated life in post-war America. The roads he wrote about are at their own crossroads.

Will they continue to remain a vision of a mobile and vibrant society or will they evolve into the post-apocalyptic roads of "Road Warrior"?

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