In today’s America, we have come to take for granted the sad state of the national transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 report card gave the nation a D+ grade on its roads, bridges, and ports.
There was a time when a D+ was not acceptable. There was also a time in the US when A+ was the standard. Now failing is the standard. This D+ rating left the news cycle faster than an average commuter gets home on our overly congested highways.
As I write this piece, I’m sitting stalled on Amtrak headed from Washington, DC to New York’s Penn Station due to a derailment in Penn Station. As a Nevada Department of Transportation board member and long time transportation advocate, I am all too familiar with this experience and storyline.
We all know that America’s infrastructure is crumbling and congestion is at an all-time high. Americans have been forced to just accept long commutes and spending less time at home with their families.
It is also simply accepted that the deterioration of our nation’s surface transportation infrastructure is due in large part to the fact that our Congressional leaders no longer have a vision for the infrastructure that moves our $18.5trn economy and over 321m Americans. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower had the courage to force Congress to invest and begin building the Interstate Highway System we have today. Unfortunately, today’s congressional leaders would rather stop progress than make progress, and Americans go on suffering.
But there is hope. Many regions are passing their own transportation referenda to fund transportation investments and improvements. Voters approved more than $200bn in transportation ballot initiatives this past November, and many regions are increasing the use of toll lanes and roads to reduce congestion to pay for infrastructure.
Yet, this is not enough. Fuel revenues are decreasing due to the increased investments of electric and hybrid vehicles, and overall higher fuel efficiencies in today’s vehicles. If governments does not routinely raise fuel taxes and/or index them to inflation, and if some mechanism is not implemented to capture the increased number of electric and hybrid vehicles road usage, then America’s infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.
One way forward is the increased usage of toll roads. As we move to a transportation system that will include electric and hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and connected or autonomous vehicles, we clearly have the means to ensure all road users can help directly fund the roads they use every day – not just the ones that burn lots of gas.
Americans clearly see the need for investments in greater mobility to help our economy grow. Take, for example, the recent passage of Measure M in Los Angeles. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA Metro CEO Phil Washington courageously made sure the ballot measure passed with over 71 percent of approval by Angelenos.
Why? Angelenos are fed up with congestion and lack of Congressional leadership. Measure M is the first ever transportation initiative with no sunset provision, creating an endless funding stream for LA Metro to invest in transit, local streets and roads, bridges, buses, and highways.
Another example is the recent opening of Express Lanes on State Route 91 in Riverside County, California, one of the nation’s most congested commutes. SR 91 is a critical route for the regional economy because it moves the workers for Orange and LA Counties from their homes in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Toll lanes now run from the City of Riverside all the way to southern Orange County. The toll lanes are now working at near capacity due to the great need for mobility improvements in the region.
Toll lanes work and more regions and states should begin to initiate the inclusion of these lanes to reduce congestion, improve mobility and improve the driving public’s quality of life.
There is no magic formula to funding our infrastructure. We need every tool available to improve America’s surface transportation infrastructure, and toll roads belong as part of that multifaceted toolset.
Tom Skancke is chief executive of TSC2 Group, a management consulting firm, and is executive director of the Western Regional Alliance, an association of western transportation and metropolitan planning organisations. This article reflects his own views, not those of the Nevada Department of Transportation.