America's unrequited love of the open road
An all-too-familiar sight: Traffic delays on the not-so-open road. (CBS)
Remember FDR's idea that the interstates should pay for themselves? Well, that never quite came to pass. We pay to build and maintain our highways mostly through the federal gas tax (currently 18.4 cents a gallon). That tax rate has stayed the same since 1993.
Last year, about $32 billion in revenue came in; $37 billion in expenses went out.
You can guess who made up the balance: Every single taxpayer, regardless of how much, or how little, they drive.
"We've been driving on borrowed time, and it's running out - in fact, I'd suggest the clock has stopped,' said Catherine Ross, a transportation researcher based at Georgia Tech.
"How urgent is this highway funding crisis?" asked Strassmann.
"The urgency is, oh, 20 years ago. I'm saying that with tongue in cheek, but it's beyond urgent. It's tied to our continued preeminence in the world, and it's certainly tied to our national economic success," she said.
Unfortunately, that's coming at a time when the Department of Transportation says it needs $100 billion a year for the next twenty years to maintain the current system - to say nothing of expanding it.
"When you look into the future and you begin to look at what our investments will mean when we're competing with China, India, emerging economic powers like Brazil, we better have our infrastructure ready to go, to be able to compete on a global basis," said Victor Mendez, who runs the Federal Highway Administration.
He has overseen more than $26 billion in spending on bridges and roads as part of President Obama's stimulus effort.
"When you look at what that investment needs, I know the President gets it. He understands the importance of investing in infrastructure, because otherwise, we're going to concede or fall back, you know, behind the eight ball," said Mendez.
Besides fixing and building roads, the government also wants to get drivers out of their cars and onto busses, trains, or even bikes.
That's a tall order: The Census Bureau reports that 86 percent of us commute by car, and the vast majority of us drive alone.
In Houston, Texas, the oil boom is keeping the economy moving, and the highways jam-packed.
But Jack Whaley is fighting back with a program called TranStar.
"The typical freeway in most parts of the country was designed for about 180,000 cars," Whaley told Strassmann. "In Houston, our freeways are running about 360,000, 320,000 cars every day" - about twice what they were built for.
At TranStar's NASA-inspired mission control center, they monitor cell phone signals from cars to track their progress, or lack of it.
"We know what the speeds are," Whaley said. "We know where most people are congesting the roads. But the individual is anonymous."
TranStar costs about $26 million a year to operate, but officials claim it saves close to $300 million a year in fuel and time.
Houston's trying one other solution, something that's being considered in other parts of the country: New toll-roads where - for a price - drivers can buy access to the less-crowded carpool lanes, even if they're driving alone.
"We have those that just hate congestion, and it's worth it to them to pay 50 cents or 60 cents extra to save some of their time," said Whaley. "And then you have others who philosophically just don't like to pay tolls, and they can go down that same route, take 'em a little bit longer. So it's a choice."
That "choice" is a direct challenge to long-held beliefs that the highways represent democracy - that we're all in this together, even if we're all stuck in traffic.
But as the roads keep filling-up, we may no longer be able to afford that sentiment.
"When you ask for that access, if it costs more, you should pay more," said Georgia Tech's Catherine Ross. "Or certainly that's a consideration. So it's democracy for all, but under constrained conditions, it costs more, because it costs more to provide you that ability to travel."
Ross said that we've relied on the legacy of Roosevelt and Eisenhower for about as long as we possibly can. Whether it's in tolls, taxes or crumblng roads, pretty soon we'll all have to pay the price.
"To those who say 'I've already paid for this,' my answer is, 'Sometimes you have to pay to keep what you have,'" said Ross. "It started off in good repair, it was brand new. That is no longer the case."
For more info:
- "The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways" by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin)
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