Whether you drive a truck, an SUV or a hybrid, whether you live in a congested city or sprawling countryside, you either use roads and bridges to get to work, see family and travel, or you rely on the food and other goods that are brought to your town on our roads and highways.
In America, it’s very hard to get away from roads. But right now, there’s a growing concern that we are not going to be able to keep them in working condition.
Along with most of the major issues that have come before Congress in the past few years, authorization of the federal transportation program, which should have been resolved months ago, has become snarled in political bickering. And while the Senate after much delay was able to pass a bipartisan plan, its path to the president’s desk is by no means assured.
It’s no secret that roads, bridges and highways around the country are crumbling. In Tennessee, major arteries are in better condition than in many other states because of the emphasis the state Department of Transportation placed on planning, construction and repair over the past decade. But infrastructure needs continual maintenance, with long-range planning that accounts for population growth and changing commuter patterns. The condition of Tennessee’s infrastructure in a matter of a few years could be very different if a workable plan is not approved.
The Senate’s plan, called MAP-21 (for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), offers a practical way forward that includes key components:
• $20.6 billion for repairing and improving an expanded national highway system. States would be required to monitor the condition of roads and bridges in the system and spend a certain amount to maintain them.
• $10.4 billion for a program in which states and regional authorities can invest in highway, transit, freight rail and bicycle and pedestrian projects.
• $2.5 billion to states to improve highway safety.
• $3.3 billion to states and major metropolitan planning organizations to address air-quality issues resulting from auto emissions.
• $2.1 billion to establish a primary freight network, consisting of 27,000 miles of key truck corridors and requiring a strategic plan to address future volume and impact on roads and communities.
The Senate bill would guarantee an increase in repair funding in Tennessee from $122.5 million to $225 million, and require that it and other states spend a larger percentage of their portion of federal gasoline tax revenues on roads and bridges than is currently the case. That is, after all, what the gas tax was intended for. And no leading lawmakers of either party will support an increase in the gas tax in an election year.
Meanwhile, the House-passed Paul Ryan budget plan would cut transportation funding by a third, and allow states to divert all gas-tax receipts to other uses; at least, until a state’s roads and bridges deteriorate to such an extent that the U.S. Department of Transportation has to step in. Since any repairs or replacements under those conditions would cost far more than they would with regular maintenance, it’s hard to figure why Ryan’s supporters see themselves as the fiscally responsible ones.
The Senate-House Conference Committee has until June 30 to reconcile a transportation authorization plan. That’s when the current temporary extension expires. Here is yet another opportunity for responsible lawmakers to show that they don’t care only about re-election, that what happens to their constituents matters more.
Tennessee’s senators and representatives should get behind the Senate’s MAP-21 as the only practical course. You can’t kick the can very far if the road you’re on is full of potholes.