By James T. Brett
New Englanders are faced with daily reminders that age, increased usage and our harsh climate have contributed to the deterioration of our transportation network. Across New England, more than 2,000 bridges are rated by the federal government as structurally deficient. That’s more than 11.5 percent of the bridges in our region.
Over 5,000 bridges are rated as functionally obsolete. According to the most recent Federal Highway Administration data, from 1992 to 2012, there were an additional 1.17 million New England drivers on our roads, and vehicle-miles travelled per year jumped from 109.6 billion to 129.3 billion in that same 20-year period. Our stressed surface transportation infrastructure is witnessing traffic usage at levels far beyond those originally anticipated by their planners and designers.
According to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index, the U.S. ranks 19th in quality of overall infrastructure and 18th in terms of its roadways. McKinsey Global Institute said in a January 2013 report that nations are either investing or planning to invest significantly to raise their infrastructure systems to a level that will help allow them to grow their economies. In fact, over a ten-year period ending in 2011, China invested 8.5 percent of its GDP, while Japan poured in 5 percent, and India invested 4.7 percent. In that same period, the U.S. invested 2.6 percent.
Nations across the globe recognize the imperative of creating a strong infrastructure for their own economic vitality. And they are not waiting around for the United States to catch up. Last fall, China’s vice minister for transportation gave a speech in Chicago in which he outlined the extent China was adding to its infrastructure. Over the next five years, China intends to spend nearly $100 billion annually on rail, add 60 new airports (which would increase their current number by more than one-third), and add some 378,000 miles of highways and motorways.
In July of 2012, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, which authorized federal highway, transit and road safety programs over a two-year period. While MAP-21 contained a number of important reforms to help harmonize project delivery, increase accountability and enhance safety, it expires in just four months. Washington must build on the strengths of MAP-21 through new legislation which will bring stability, continuity and growth to New England and the nation.
Developing long-term surface transportation legislation that can garner bipartisan support on both sides of Capitol Hill is a challenge; finding a means to fund such legislation will be an even greater challenge. The New England Council applauds the interest that has been shown by leaders in the House and the Senate in pursuing a long-term reauthorization bill. In fact, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced and one Senate committee already has passed a measure, the MAP-21 Reauthorization Act, which furthers the nation’s surface transportation programs for six years. The council is also pleased that the president has added his voice to the call for a reauthorization bill by releasing a four-year legislative proposal. The council further encourages the president and congressional leaders to find common ground on providing the necessary funds that will ensure projects can proceed in the months and years ahead.
There is little doubt that a robust surface transportation network provides tremendous benefits for job creation and serves as the backbone for economic growth and vitality. Indeed, a recent infrastructure report issued by the New England Council and Deloitte found that a $1 billion investment in infrastructure could result in 22,000 to 27,000 new jobs in New England along with GDP growth of up to $9.7 billion.
We cannot afford to lag behind on infrastructure investment if the U.S. intends to increase its global competitiveness. Now that Congress and the White House have taken steps to move forward on their respective surface transportation proposals, the council urges all parties to work toward a legislative consensus. A long-term measure that is adequately funded will demonstrate a seriousness to growing the economy and a commitment to revitalizing infrastructure that our region — and our nation — need and deserve.
James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions promoting economic growth.