February 3, 2013

America's highway bill coming due

Experts agree that many states spent too much on building highways and too little on fixing them.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Oil-rich Texas has built more highways and bridges than any other state, but over the next two decades it will fall $170 billion short of what it needs to keep the sprawling network in good repair.

Special-interest push for South Carolina interstate hits roadblock
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The U.S. highway system is crumbling physically and financially due to a politically driven road-building binge.

Steve Jessmore/Myrtle Beach Sun News/MCT

In California, transportation officials estimate that 60 percent of the state's roads and a quarter of its bridges need to be repaired or replaced, at a projected cost of $70 billion over a decade, some $52 billion more than the available funds.

North Carolina anticipates that it will fall short of keeping its highways in current condition by $22 billion over the next 30 years, and would need more than twice that amount to improve them.

America's highway system, once a symbol of freedom and mobility envied the world over, is crumbling physically and financially, the potentially disastrous consequence of a politically driven road-building binge.

President Obama, state transportation officials, civil engineers, road builders and business groups all say that the country needs to invest trillions of dollars in its infrastructure, yet there's little consensus on how to finance it or what the most pressing needs are.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the country needs $14 billion in additional federal funds each year just to maintain highways and $50 billion more to improve them.

There's no single cause of the financial squeeze, and federal data reveal only part of it. Some states have raised their own gasoline taxes to pay for highway construction and maintenance and to depend less on federal funding. Others haven't changed their gas taxes in years and rely on federal money to make up for it.

But federal government analysts, taxpayer advocates and transportation experts have warned for at least a decade that many states were spending too much on building highways and too little on fixing them, and that their maintenance costs would skyrocket if they didn't change course.

"We've engaged in a dangerous game of deferred maintenance," said Brian Taylor, a professor of urban planning and the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Five years after an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minnesota, killing 13 people and injuring 145, the country still has a bridge repair backlog of $65 billion, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

At a time when Congress is proposing significant budget cuts and tax increases have little support, states are canceling or scaling back highway projects. They're looking for private partners to help finance construction, and still coming up short. Motorists are discovering that the roads they thought were free are anything but.

Over the past four months, McClatchy Newspapers traced the extent and causes of yet another financial crisis that's developed below the radar of most Americans.

A review of government reports, an analysis of thousands of state and federal campaign donations, and interviews with dozens of current and former elected officials, watchdogs and transportation officials showed that there were a lot of hands on the wheel as the system veered off course.

For example:

The oldest parts of the interstate highway system have reached the end of their life cycle, including thousands of bridges dating to the 1960s, a potential threat to public safety and commerce demonstrated by the Minnesota bridge collapse.

The federal gasoline tax no longer covers the country's annual highway spending, but few leaders in Washington are willing to take on the political risk of increasing it, which forces states to borrow more money, raise tolls or ask their residents to approve new taxes.

Despite a ban on members of Congress "earmarking," or skimming money for pet projects back home, lawmakers and the special interests that bankroll their campaigns still exert outsized influence on where federal highway funding goes.

(Continued on page 2)

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