America Needs Some Political Backbone
It seems that only disasters have the ability to awaken the American public, and the cataclysmic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis has people stirring. It should. Failures like this can happen anywhere. It is the latest in a string of explosions, power outages, water shortages and rail and aviation misadventures that show that almost all infrastructure programs are out of step with the nation’s needs. Success takes money, organization and planning and government officials are in charge because this is how they serve the public. Money is the usual excuse for not getting things done in a timely fashion. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates total needs of $1.6 trillion in federal, state and local funds. But a lack of will is the real cause. Almost always, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Here’s what needs to be done in key sectors:
As air travelers know, the aviation system needs more capacity. New runways, taxiways and terminal expansions will help. A Federal Aviation Administration report in May says 14 airports will need to add capacity by 2025, even after they finish planned improvements.
A first vital step is for Congress to pass a new multi-year aviation reauthorization. House and Senate committees have cleared similar versions, with increases in the Airport Improvement Program construction grants. Also vital is the House committee provision increasing the cap on passenger facility charges (PFCs) from $4.50 to $6, which would help fund airport projects. Moreover, “we need flexibility in PFCs so that airports can direct funds as needed to security and capacity,” says William Fife, aviation vice president with DMJM Harris/AECOM in New York City.
Airlines, general aviation and other users will need to ante up more money. The Senate committee proposes a per-flight fee on many of those users. The House committee suggests hiking fuel taxes for some general aviation users. Tax committees may have other ideas.
It has been 14 years since the federal motor fuel tax has been increased. To cut into the backlog of deficient bridges and critical highway reconstruction, it is time for another hike. Every penny increase in the levy, for gasoline and diesel will bring in $1.73 billion a year, estimates William Buechner, vice president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. A boost in each state’s fuels tax, dedicated to roads and bridges, would help, too.
Cause of Minneapolis collapse is unknown, but it is spurring reviews.
Needs are great. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation says it would take an additional $8.5 billion a year in highway and bridge capital spending to maintain system conditions so users’ costs do not rise. DOT says the price tag for all road and bridge projects whose benefits exceed costs is about $61.4 billion annually.
Complacency must be fought, says Ray McCabe, bridge and tunnel services chairman for HNTB Corp., Kansas City. “We know there will be a short-term effort” in the wake of the collapse, but awareness must be sustained, he says. “The right learning campaign” can help the public accept at least a small increase in the gas tax, he says.
Janet Kavinoky, transportation lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urges renewed focus on the big picture. “We can’t be parochial,” she says.
Americans have been offered many lessons about flood defenses and risk since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in the fall of 2005. Now is the time to show whether or not anything has been learned.
Lessons that should apply now include the need for engineers and planners to become better attuned to evolving flood hazards and the havoc they can wreak on populations and infrastructure, thanks to influences of changing land use patterns, subsidence, rising sea levels and increasingly erratic patterns of severe weather.
The hazards of flooding can no longer be assumed to fit historic patterns. Even if the growing volatility of storms and heavy rain events was not enough of a wildcard, rapid urbanization and broad land-use changes across entire watersheds...