America was once the land of transportation marvels: the Erie Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad were the envy of the rest of the world.
But that was in the 19th century, and America's transportation system is now at risk of falling into disrepair and gridlock, according to a report published this week from the U.S. Department of Transportation. While the country once built a gleaming interstate highway system, the quality of America's roads is now ranked No. 16 in the world, behind countries such as Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Portugal.
"It is not just that our infrastructure is showing its age -- our country, in many ways, has outgrown it," the Transportation Department report noted. "If you drive a car, you now spend, on average, the equivalent of five vacation days every year sitting in traffic."
While that's bad enough, the report warned that the country is at risk of falling even farther behind by 2045 without a clear plan for dealing with aging infrastructure and a growing population, which will put more stress on already overrun roads and transit systems.
For commuters, that will have real consequences. "We're expecting over the next 30 years, a 60 percent increase in truck traffic on our freeways," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told NPR. "The bottom line is, if you're stuck in traffic today and your travel time's longer than it was 10 years ago, it's likely to get worse."
The report comes just as President Obama is asking for a corporate tax overhaul in his proposed budget, with a tax on multinational corporate profits going to pay for a six-year $478 billion upgrade to the country's infrastructure.
America's roads have earned a "D" grade, meaning "poor," from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Those poor-quality roads and other transportation systems are about to get a lot more use, the Transportation Department noted. The country's population will expand by 70 million by 2045, placing more stress on already fragile systems. Cities such as Omaha, Nebraska, might encounter the type of clogged traffic that's made Los Angeles infamous.
On average, Americans spend more than 40 hours stuck in traffic each year, with an annual cost amounting to $121 billion. Congestion is likely to get worse over the coming decades, especially in what the report calls "megaregions," or large population centers such as the Northeast corridor and the Chicago hub area.
Those megaregions may absorb three-quarters of the U.S. population by 2050, with population growth the greatest in the South and West. But, the report warned, "existing infrastructure might not be able to accommodate it."
Funding uncertainty and static policies have led to "an increasingly deteriorated and fragile" infrastructure. While the report noted that it's not providing an action plan, it wants to start a discussion about the issues facing the country's infrastructure.
"The U.S. transportation system is still proceeding under a 20th century model in which our policies, practices, and programs are presumed to be sufficient, as are the resources devoted to them," Foxx wrote in a letter published in the report.