By the time you read this, it's possible that our nation's elected leaders will have figured out a way to fund transportation in this country. After countless extensions, proposals, and threats, it seems that the House, the Senate, and the President are at last drifting toward a compromise on what they are calling the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005, or SAFETEA.
That effort gained momentum in May when the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) released its annual report on traffic congestion, indicating that while miles driven have increased 74% since 1982, lane miles have increased only 6%. This results in Americans wasting 2.3 billion gallons of fuel each year sitting in traffic jams. TTI concludes that the cost for fuel and lost productivity is $64.8 billion a year. If that's not motivation to spend some money on our highway system, I don't know what is.
But there are some details to work out when you're planning to spend nearly $300 billion over six years. And although it's the bottom line we most often hear about in the news, the details are fascinating. There are 3676 “priority projects” written directly into the bill, ranging from $59,000 to “improve circuitry on vehicle protection device installed at highway-[railroad] crossing in Athens, Tenn.” to $17 million for “completion of four-lane extension from the Town of Somerset, Pa., to the Maryland border.”
These priority projects may be very worthy, but should the U.S. Congress really be arguing over railroad crossing circuitry in Tennessee? Should our political leaders be looking out across America and deciding which transportation projects deserve funding? Or did they solicit recommendations from transportation officials, then mandate those projects deemed “essential” to our nation's future?
Of course, we know that's not how it happened. Political favors are part of the way Washington (and every other government) works, but they certainly obfuscate the truth of how much is being spent on transportation. This is something public works officials live with every day. Let's face it; when the city engineer goes in to talk to the city council, he or she is probably the smartest person in the room—certainly the most knowledgeable about the city's infrastructure needs. But we live in a republic, and those who are elected must make the decisions and take the credit (or bear the blame).
Still, it gripes me when I see a news story where an elected official is quoted as the expert on the newest highway project when we know that they are only parroting what they were told by the public works director. I suppose that leaves it to us to explain the issues as clearly as possible and hope they are listening.
Editor in Chief