Dangerous, Deteriorating Roads – There’s No Cheap Fix

America’s road to recovery may face a costly detour due to a fraying transportation network. This past week, President Obama unveiled a proposed $300 billion plan to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges and rail lines. It is an acknowledgement that our country’s transportation infrastructure has fallen into a terrible state of disrepair, resulting from deferred maintenance and repair due to strapped state and federal budgets for the past several years. The feds’ current transportation funding – which most all experts agree is inadequate – expires in September.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in front of the dilapidated Brent Spence Bridge during a visit to CincinnatiThe federal gasoline tax, which funds most of the federal investment in roads and bridges, has not been raised in twenty years. Whether you agree with the Obama proposal or not, there seems little doubt that we are going to somehow have to pony up the dollars to repair our roads and bridges, and do so soon. The terrible state of America’s transportation infrastructure is making our roads less safe, and driving up the costs of nearly everything we consume.

One in nine of the country’s 607,380 bridges are structurally deficient, and 42% of the country’s major urban highways are congested, according to an American Society of Civil Engineers estimate, the result of years of inadequate funding and deferred maintenance.

Trucks ship the bulk of the country’s goods. But trucking companies and their customers complain those shipments are being rerouted—sometimes by hundreds of miles—or traveling at lower speeds over deteriorating or traffic-clogged highways. That causes higher costs for fuel, maintenance and other expenses, including drivers.

Let’s focus for moment on one state: Pennsylvania, where one in four bridges is structurally deficient—the highest in the nation. The state Department of Transportation recently lowered weight limits on more than 1,000 bridges dotting the state to reduce wear and extend their service. As a result, those bridges could be off-limits to big trucks and trailers. When a trucker has to drive one hundred miles out his way to find a safe bridge to cross, the added expense eventually shows up in the economy.

The burden is greatest in industries and regions where heavy loads are the norm, such as steel, energy, construction and automotive. But the impact percolates through the broader economy as well. Inadequate surface transportation is projected to cost U.S. businesses $430 billion more in operating expenses by 2020 and cause $1.7 trillion in lost sales opportunities, according to the ASCE.

Besides raising the costs on food, raw materials, and consumer items, the disruption of the normal flow of all of this shipping is a safety issue, as well. Big rigs are being forced, in ever greater numbers, to travel on a shrinking number of roads and bridges. This means more such trucks sharing the roads with passenger vehicles, and significantly increased congestion in urban areas.

Some urban centers have seen an almost four-fold increase in the number of tractor-trailer rigs on what, ten years ago, were primarily commuter roadways. This congestion inevitably leads to more traffic accidents, and some of those collisions involve big rigs. We at MKR have seen the devastating results of a collision between a passenger car or truck and one of these eighty thousand pound goliaths. We’ve represented many clients grievously injured or killed in such trucking accidents.

The fact is, for a multitude of reasons, our country can’t afford not to repair its transportation system, whatever the cost.