Although the Republican ascension in Congress has divided Washington, U.S. lawmakers are finally focusing their attention on a long-neglected problem: the nation's aging infrastructure.
The crumbling state of the nation's roads, bridges, airports, water systems and electrical grid is a long-standing problem. In its most recent national "report card," the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's infrastructure a grade of D+, noting that "without prioritizing our nation's infrastructure needs, deteriorating conditions can become a drag on the economy."
America's roads and bridges, due to their daily use, top the nation's to-do list. Parts of that ground transportation infrastructure have been suffering catastrophic failures, as well. A major example of what can happen when infrastructure is ignored was the 2007 collapse of an interstate bridge in Minneapolis, where 13 people were killed and nearly 150 others injured. And earlier this month, a construction worker was killed in Cincinnati, Ohio, when a section of an I-75 overpass undergoing demolition collapsed.
In an interview that aired Sunday on the CBS program "60 Minutes," House Speaker John Boehner agreed there was a chance in the new Congress for bipartisan progress on repairing the country's infrastructure. But he noted that the Highway Trust Fund -- a federal highway infrastructure fund that gets much of its revenue through consumer gasoline taxes -- continues to shrink, in part due to Congress' ongoing reluctance to raise gas taxes.
"We believe that through tax reform, a couple of other options that are being looked at, we can find the funds to fund a long-term highway bill," Boehner said. "It's critically important to the country."
Meanwhile, Congress is also being prodded by organizations that rely on the national highway system to find funding to fix crucial infrastructure as soon as possible.
"Americans are frustrated with our nation's crumbling infrastructure, including increasingly congested highways and deficient roads and bridges," AAA, the American Trucking Associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote, in a joint letter to Congress on Monday.
The groups also said that 32 percent of the nation's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and that this neglect is costing the average driver $324 annually in additional vehicle repairs and operating costs. They also blamed inadequate infrastructure for lengthening commute times, with the average American spending 38 hours each year stuck in traffic.
"Fortunately, there is a simple solution to address this issue in the near-term -- raise the federal fuels user fee, provided the funds are used to ease congestion and improve safety," the groups said.
The last increase to the federal user fee for gasoline was in 1993. Although Congress has enacted several stop-gap measures for the Highway Trust Fund, its current funding is scheduled to expire at the end of May.
Private industry is also ratcheting up the pressure. "Don't Let America Dead End" is the name of a national trade campaign launched last month by Astec Industries (ASTE), a Tennessee-based manufacturer of infrastructure-building equipment such as asphalt-pavers.
"We need all the industries that support and use America's highways -- construction, road paving, material production and others - to help us reach out to federal-elected representatives via email, phone calls and visits to share why it's necessary to fund highway investment," Benjamin Brock, Astec's president and CEO, said in a statement.
"We, as an industry, mistakenly feel like there's nothing we can do to solve the funding crisis facing our nation's highways. And that's not true. It's up to us to show our collective influence and educate our representation on the positive effects of passing a long-term highway bill with increased funding."