The U.N. suspends Syrian peace talks until late this month. The U.S. plans to quadruple military spending in Europe as a signal to Russia. And American officials express concern about ISIS in Libya. A panel of journalists joins guest host Tom Gjelten for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Some 63,000 bridges in the U.S. are deemed to be structurally deficient: not on the verge of collapsing, but in serious need of repair. This is actually good news: an increase in federal spending in the past few years has slightly lowered the number of U.S. bridges urgently needing maintenance. But experts warn there is a crisis at hand. The Highway Trust Fund is projected to run out of money by the end of the summer, federal taxes on gas and diesel haven’t been raised in 20 years, and despite support in both parties, it’s not clear what federal funding will be available for state and local infrastructure projects. Join us to discuss who will pick up the tab for road repairs.
- Chris Edwards economist and editor of DownsizingGovernment.org, Cato Institute.
- Fawn Johnson correspondent, National Journal.
- Robert Puentes senior fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution.
- Patrick Jones executive director and CEO, International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association (IBTTA).
- Phineas Baxandall federal budget and tax analyst, US PIRG.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Potholes, crumbling pavements and structurally deficient bridges -- there's lots of work to be done on the nation's roadways. But unless Congress votes to supplement federal gas tax revenue, states and counties will likely be shelving an ever-growing list of projects on their must-do list. Joining me to talk about how we pay for our roads and bridges, Robert Puentes of The Brookings Institution, Chris Edwards of Cato, Fawn Johnson of the National Journal. And joining us at a studio at WGBH in Boston, Phineas Baxandall of US PIRG.
MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure many of you have experienced some of the difficulties on the road lately. Let's hear from you today, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you all for joining us.
MS. FAWN JOHNSONGood morning, Diane.
MR. ROBERT PUENTESThank you.
MR. CHRIS EDWARDSMorning.
MR. PHINEAS BAXANDALLMorning
REHMGood to have you all with us. Robert Puentes, tell us a little about the 63,000 U.S. bridges deemed structurally deficient.
PUENTESWell, thank you, Diane. Yeah the bridges are good to look at because we can count them. We have a nice bridge inventory that's updated pretty regularly. And we do a good job at understanding what condition they're in. And this is obviously a big deal, when 10, 11 percent of American bridges are structurally deficient. This is something that affects all Americans, rich and poor, urban and rural, whether you're driving, whether you're on transit, whether you're walking or biking, whether it's moving freight, whether you're trying to get to work. This is something that has broad impact all across the country.
REHMAnd I would be certain that some are more structurally deficient than others.
PUENTESStructurally deficient doesn't necessarily mean they're in imminent danger of falling down. It means though that they have probably reached the end of their useful life and they need to be rehabilitated and maintained. But it also begs the question of why should we wait until it is an imminent danger? We really need to reinvest in the existing system, and the bridges are a great example of where we need to do that.
REHMIs there any indication of how many of those 63,000 are really a danger?
PUENTESThe fracture critical is another term that we use to look at these bridges. It means there isn't the redundancies that are built in to the engineering of the bridges. So if one thing goes wrong, a bolt or some critical piece falls apart, that yes, that is going to be something tragically that's going to affect Americans. But the structurally deficient is the broad term that's used for all of these things, mostly looking at their age, when they were built and the conditions they're in now.
REHMBut, Chris Edwards, I gather there has been some improvement in both the repair and the number of bridges being looked at, taken care of.
EDWARDSThat's right, Diane. There is some good news here. The headlines of the paper the other day said that 63,000 bridges were structurally deficient. Well, that's true, but it's out of over 600,000 bridges in the United States. So it's about 10 percent, as Robert said. And if you look at the trend of data from the Federal Highway Administration, there's been a steady reduction in the number of deficient bridges, from about 22 percent two decades ago to just 10 percent today.
EDWARDSThere's other interesting data from the Federal Highway Administration that shows that the actual -- the surface quality of our interstates has actually improved substantially over the last couple decades. So there is good news here. We all know that our interstates are getting more and more congested. And that's a big problem, we need more capacity. But in terms of the quality of the infrastructure, it's not all bad news. There is some data that shows that the quality is getting better.
REHMNow, to you, Fawn Johnson. How do we pay for making sure that these bridges, these highways are in good shape.
JOHNSONWell, I was going to say, that's the $63 billion question, Diane. But actually, if you look at the administration's budget, it's more like the $300 billion question. This has been the problem that has plagued policymakers ever since the recession. They -- it used to be that you were able to come up with a big highways and transit funding bill that would be in the $400 billion range that would last for five years. But that was before the recession, it was before there was a huge insistence on shrinking the government and making sure that we paid as we went.
JOHNSONAnd so this is something that Congress is going to be facing this summer, because the Highway Trust Fund, which is the fund that gives states the money to actually upgrade and maintain the roads, is going to be depleted sometime by the end of August, according to some of the -- the CBO and a few other estimates, if Congress doesn't act.
REHMBut am I correct in understanding that that National Highway Trust Fund pays for only half of what happens in the states, that the states and counties themselves have to pick up...
JOHNSONThat's right. They do supplement. And also it is not uncommon, and it has been the case for the last 10 years, that the Federal Treasury supplements the Highway Trust Fund. Highway Trust Fund, again, is funded by a federal gas tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon. It's been that way for 20 years. But it's not quite -- it doesn't quite meet all the -- just the needs to maintain the roads and the bridges. Just according to the CBO, it's about $12 billion short every year. And that's just our existing level of spending.
JOHNSONIt doesn't account for the kinds of improvements that would be needed, say, to keep the bridges in decent shape and also to expand our capacity. But the big question is, how do you pay for it? And there really has not been much of a satisfactory answer coming out because you don't -- you have to take the money from somewhere. So there's -- there are some answers out there. There are some creative solutions that are being floated around. John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland in the House, has an idea about auctioning tax breaks on overseas earnings, to try and raise a little bit, something like $50 billion for an infrastructure plan.
REHMAnd is Maryland also talking about raising gas taxes on its own.
JOHNSONYeah. Right, right.
REHMNow, I want to point out to our listeners that in today's issue of the Financial Times, there's the first in three articles by Robert Wright on U.S. infrastructure. The headline is, "Explores the Looming Crisis of the Country's Transport Network." I wonder, to you, Phineas Baxandall, is that how you would see it -- crisis looming for the U.S. in terms of bridges and roads?
BAXANDALLWell, I think it certainly isn't the good news story that we heard a little while ago. There's been some improvement. The stimulus from 2009 gave a big infrastructure infusion. And that's one reason that we have seen some improvement. Although if you look at, you know, kind of four-year increments about how many bridges are being improved, it's less and less and less each four-year period. So we're doing worse from that point of view, just strictly on the bridges. And the bridges were mainly created -- a lot of them -- after World War II.
BAXANDALLAnd they have a usable life of about 50 years. So the average structurally efficient bridge has a life -- has been out there for 65 years. And we're going to have more and more of these bridges which are now beyond what was originally their planned usable life.
BAXANDALLJust from a...
REHMExcuse me. Go ahead.
BAXANDALLJust from a bridge point of view, I think it's not a good story out there, what's going on. I think the larger kind of picture that I'm concerned about is not about, can we maintain our mid-20th century infrastructure, but what Ms. Johnson was talking about, that the opportunities for infrastructure and the desires of our population are really changing. We're in the ninth year in a row, actually, that Americans are driving less miles than they did the year before. And people are -- record numbers of people using transit. There's been a real switch.
BAXANDALLWe see overseas also increasing use of high-speed rail, these things of this sort. And this is something that the U.S. has largely not been able to take advantage of -- not been able to take all of the kind of benefits, environmental, infrastructure or otherwise from that because we're not investing in it.
REHMPhineas Baxandall, he's federal budget and tax analyst for US PIRG. Fawn Johnson of National Journal. Chris Edwards, he's an economist, editor of DownsizingGovernment.org at the Cato Institute. And Robert Puentes, he's at the Brookings Institution. We will be taking your calls, comments. 800-433-8850. Robert Puentes, isn't part of the problem exactly the efficiency that has been brought to U.S. automobiles? People are driving -- not only driving less, but they're using less gasoline, thereby paying less into the U.S. Treasury in terms of gas taxes.
PUENTESIndeed. We're driving much less. We're driving more fuel-efficient cars when we do drive. And then we have all these looming challenges, I guess is the right word, about electric vehicles and things that are not consuming any gasoline coming on the horizon. So there is this kind of perverse incentive that comes with the automobile network. You buy gas. You pay more into the Highway Trust Fund. You have the gasoline tax, the state gasoline taxes. And as that begins to dwindle, we have less to reinvest in the existing system, not just the highway system, but the transit system as well.
PUENTESSo the good thing I think that's happening is we're starting to look at this all across the board. We're not just looking at highways over here and transit over here and some other infrastructure over here, but we're trying to understand, this is a network and it's a system of systems. And they all work together. And Americans, the traveling public really doesn't care how they're getting from one place to another. They're going to do it in the most efficient, cheapest, most predictable way possible. If it's going to transit in some places, it's going to be great.
PUENTESIf it's going to be driving in other places, that's great. But if we have to look at it as an entire system, and then that helps us devise solutions for paying for the system and structure.
REHMHow much do you think -- well, let me back up. How old was the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed?
PUENTESThat's a good question. I don't know exactly, I just think that...
REHMDoes anybody know?
PUENTESIt's around the time of the highway -- when the highway system was built, this was a road -- the interstates were built, started to build in the '50s and '60s. This was probably a bridge that was around that time, right through the middle of the urban area, so very heavily used. It was under construction at the time, as we know. So it's emblematic, I think, of some of the larger urban bridges that we're seeing in...
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk more about other solutions that are being proposed around the country -- one very interesting one in Oregon. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the entire transit system across the U.S. and monies for that, most especially bridges, roads, how we're paying for upkeep, how we are paying for repair. And most especially the 63,000 bridges out there that are in need of repair. Go our first email from Michael, Fawn Johnson. "How does the federal government give money to the states? Doesn't this money originate with individuals and companies that work in those states to begin with?
JOHNSONIt's an excellent question and I'm going to give a relatively simple answer because I confess that I did not parse all of the funding formulas that they negotiated over the years. But essentially what happens is that the highway bill, the sort of short term we use for the service transportation bill, has a funding formula where they provide states money from the highway trust fund based on a formula that everyone agrees to.
JOHNSONIn the past, the battles were about, you know, which states were giving money to states that needed money, etcetera. But for the most part that's been settled. And from what I can tell talking to members of congress, it probably will continue to be settled as they go forward and reauthorize it. The money that comes from the states does come -- and it comes from their own coffers. They make the decisions about how they use it. But when it comes from the federal government, it's part of a formula and then determined by the states to how to spend it.
REHMAnd Chris Edwards, isn't there more and more private public partnerships going into both construction and repair?
EDWARDSThat's right. There's a looming financing problem at the federal level. The gas tax, as some of the other guests mentioned, isn't keeping up with the amount of spending that's required. I think the solution here is going to be -- take place at the state level and with the private sector. There's a growing movement to what are called public private partnerships and also privatization of infrastructure.
EDWARDSSo things like the toll lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia. Texas, Florida, they're putting toll lanes in with electronic tolls on their interstates. There's a big movement around the world to privatize a lot of infrastructure, whether it's airports and highways. And the United States actually lags this development. So countries like Canada are way ahead in this development. To get private money into expanding the capacity of our infrastructure you get the benefit of better private sector management, you get projects completed on time and under budget generally, like the Capital Beltway was. So there's a lot of advantages in getting the private sector involved.
REHMPhineas, you wanted to jump in.
BAXANDALLWell, I think the -- you know, studies have shown that there's a tiny sector of transportation that could be funded by some of these privatization measures. But there's bigger issues with -- you know, it's a financing -- the private sector's biggest role here is providing the upfront capital. And this is one thing which the private sector does at a higher cost. If you just look in your business section, look at, you know, what private bonds are like compared to public bonds, it's something the public doesn't go into bankruptcy as easy.
BAXANDALLBonded buyers are much more comfortable paying, you know, with lower interest rates for public bonds. So it's cheaper that way and you don't lose public control. And you maintain things like freedom of information. You may -- these things aren't proprietary business secrets if you go to the private sector.
REHMAll right. And joining us now is Patrick Jones. He is executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
MR. PATRICK JONESThank you for having me, Diane. It's a pleasure.
REHMThank you. Give us a short history of these tolls. We've used them to pay for bridges but not many roads or highways. And now more and more you are seeing them being used on roads and highways. Explain why.
JONESWell, Diane, tolls have been around for as long as the country has been around. Back in the early 1800s there were dozens and hundreds of small toll roads all across the eastern part of the United States. And the first real super highway in America was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was built in the late 1930s and opened in 1940 between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. And it was financed by using bonds -- toll revenue bonds. And the tolls were used to pay off those bonds.
JONESNow after World War II, a number of other states decided to use tolling to introduce new super highways into their states. New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Indiana and others are examples of that. But when the Interstate Highway Act was passed in 1956, congress initiated a method of providing federal taxes to the states, as Fawn and others have described, that was in many ways free money to the states.
JONESThey offered it on a 90/10 match where the feds would provide 90 percent of the money and the states had to match it with 10 percent. So with the advent of the interstate highway system and lots of federal money flowing into the system, we saw a slowdown in the use of toll facilities.
JONESBut we're seeing a resurgence now because there is great uncertainty, as your other guests have described, about whether congress will provide additional funding for the federal highway trust fund, whether they will increase the gas tax or do something to provide further federal funds.
REHMChris Edwards, do you think more tolls would be the way to go?
EDWARDSMore tolls are the way to go. It is true our interstate highway system is aging. We're going to need to rebuild it. We're going to need new capacity as our population keeps growing. I think with the new electronic tolling systems, again like we see on the new hot lanes or high occupancy toll lanes and the Capital Beltway, consumers like that system better than they like raising gas taxes. They know what they're paying for. They know they're paying for these highways. They can see the result. They get speedier transit.
EDWARDSWe're going to be seeing more of that whether it's provided by a government in the new inner state connector in Maryland or by the private sector with the Capital Beltway lanes.
REHMRobert Puentes, explain to me why the Congress has refused for more than 20 years to raise the tax on gasoline?
PUENTESYou gave me the easy question.
PUENTESI mean, there's appropriate focus on the federal government and for all the reasons we hear in Washington, we talk about the role of the federal government. But it's really only been only about 25 to 27 percent of funding for traditional public works, like transportation and water, that have come from the federal government. So we put a disproportionate amount of emphasis on what's happening in Washington.
PUENTESThat said, the federal government has made robust investments in transportation over the years. We've had a couple examples of major investments, for stimulus...
REHMThe Eisenhower years when the major highways were constructed.
PUENTESBeginning with the Eisenhower era, what we call the iced tea era, which is an acronym for something in the 1990s, the stimulus package just a few years ago. So there have been these major investments but I think there's a fundamental understanding in Washington that times have changed. And this isn't a blip that we're just waiting for at some point.
PUENTESThe federal government's going to come back and they're going to raise the gas tax and we're going to get back to what we were doing before. Things have fundamentally changed and the role that the federal government has in the nation's infrastructure system, transportation included, is different now. The states, the cities, the metropolitan areas, the private sector philanthropies are all coming together with new kinds of partnerships to get things done.
PUENTESWe have a rail project in the City of Detroit that's a public private partnership, and philanthropy is coming together. We have the Purple Line project here in Maryland, which is going to be a public and a private partnership, but different state -- so there's different ways that we're coming together to develop these things. The federal government certainly has a role to play in certain areas. Freight, for example, we have a national -- we need a national freight program because the country is big and freight is complex.
PUENTESSo that's something where the federal government should focus and should prioritize. I think those days of waiting for the cavalry to come, for the federal government to come to the rescue and provide lots of money for all kinds of different projects is fundamentally over.
REHMPatrick Jones, talk about what the State of Oregon is trying out or will try out shortly.
JONESYes. The State of Oregon has in place, or is about to start a road usage charge program in which about 5,000 people will voluntarily participate. And they will pay for a nominal fee, a per-mile fee to support the roads and highways in the State of Oregon in place of the gas tax. And they can do this in one of several different ways. One would be simply using an odometer reading. Other methods would use more sophisticated instrumentation in the vehicle.
JONESAnd the idea is to be able to pay for the support -- you know, raise funds to support an entire network of roads in the State of Oregon based on the distance that the vehicle actually travels. And this...
REHMFawn Johnson. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
JONESAnd this helps to overcome the challenge that some of your other guests have talked about, which is the fuel tax not being increased in 20 years, which has lost a lot of its purchasing power due to inflation and greater fuel efficiency of the vehicle. The notion is charge the vehicle on the actual distance that it drives on the roadway.
REHMFawn Johnson, would that in fact make up for the reduction in use of automobiles and the decreasing amount of gasoline being used?
JOHNSONI believe it would. It's not entirely clear to me whether a vehicle-miles-traveled program would make up for the shortfall that we see now between the gas tax and the amount of money that we need to pay to maintain the roads. But just in the case of replacing the money that is lost through hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles and whatnot. I think that this is -- most people in the policy community believe that this is the wave of the future.
JOHNSONThe problem with this concept has been that initially when it was first proposed about ten years ago, the idea was that you would have somebody essentially following your car around on GPS. And quite frankly, that freaks people out.
JOHNSONSo what they did in Oregon -- and this is the thing that I think is so exciting about this program is that they said, you know what? We don't actually need to decide how this odometer reading is done. We just need to set standards for it. And we can let the private sector decide how to do it. The other thing that they did was they said, no matter what you do, we need to have at least two options that are not based on GPS. And we'll let the driver decide how they're going to handle that. And the driver can switch back and forth between, you know, sort of a metered odometer or an iPhone reading.
JOHNSONAnd the concept is that once they found, through doing polling, that once people had been given the option, they didn't care so much because, you know, it's easier for you to have iPhone app that tells you about your odometer reading, and it might also tell you when you need an oil change. It might sync with your Easy Pass. I mean, there's all kinds of possibilities to this.
JOHNSONBut the -- and originally the, you know, privacy advocates and stuff -- and this is years ago when this was first proposed -- said, there's no way we're going to be able to get congress to approve of this. So they need to be trying it out on states like they're doing in Oregon. And Oregon is way ahead of a bunch of other states but there are others that are following. Washington State is one of them, California is looking at it. And I think that's where we're going but it's going to take a little while. And so they're going to need a little bit of buffer between now and then.
REHMFawn Johnson. She's correspondent for the National Journal. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Phineas, do you want to comment?
BAXANDALLYeah, all of these different funding options have different advantages, you know. The vehicle-miles fee, like they have in Oregon, can be connoitered in a way that it doesn't have the kinds of privacy issues. It doesn't, however, have the simplicity or the inherent incentives that a gas tax does that, you know, a hummer pays a higher rate than does a, you know, cheaper lighter vehicle which has less impact on the roads and the environment.
BAXANDALLSimilarly, tolls can be done in a way so that encourages carpooling, it encourages people to drive off peak hours. On the other hand, if you have a big toll crossing a bay, you encourage people to take the less efficient route where they then will go around the bay rather than use the tolls. And that then creates a big problem for the people in the small towns who may be on those secondary roads who may be getting more asthma, things of that rate.
BAXANDALLSo altogether, I mean, at some point or another we just have to suck it up and make hard decisions and figure out how to pay for this. It's not really, I don't think, a technological issue. It's really just a political question where other countries have found that they can raise their gas tax fees high enough so that it even pays for other parts of government. And we just haven't done that here.
PUENTESAnd I think the key thing that we've heard from these examples is that the innovation is coming from outside of Washington. It's coming from the states, it's coming from the cities, from the metropolitan areas. The Oregon example is very good.
PUENTESThe State of Michigan just was going through a debate and it looked inevitable they were going to provide income tax refunds to their state and to their residents. And they decided, you know what, we actually need to take that money and reinvest it in the potholes that are proliferating throughout the state. So these kinds of things, they're going to look very different across the country. But the examples and the solutions are going to come from states, cities, metropolitan areas.
REHMBut don't we still come back to the federal government needing to address the highway bill, Chris?
EDWARDSI agree with Robert entirely. I think the solution's going to come from the states and I think that's a good idea. The problem with the federal gas tax money is that we've got these 40 or $50 billion flowing into Washington. It's often misallocated. With the federal highway trust fund, money is actually taken from lower-income states and given to higher-income states. States like Texas and Florida that have a strong population growth with more needs, they actually get shortchanged from the federal highway trust fund.
EDWARDSSo there's a problem with running all this money through Washington. It is much better, in my view, to keep the money in the states. If the states want to raise their own gas taxes, they can do that any time by themselves. They can go into these public private partnerships. They can privatize infrastructure. So I think Robert's right, the solution is going to come from the states and I think that's a good idea.
JOHNSONI think it's important to remember here that we are talking about a federal transportation system. And there -- as much as we can see a lot of innovation happening in the states when it comes to public private partnerships and when it comes to vehicle miles traveled, the federal government still is going to be playing a very large role in the transportation system, no matter what.
JOHNSONI think that their goal right now is to stay out of the way of any kind of innovations that are happening in the states and to come up with a way to at least keep the funding on some predictable level for the next couple of years while some of these ideas develop. That's about all we can expect of them, but I don't think that we can expect less because that would just create chaos around the country.
REHMPatrick Jones, I want to give you the last word before we go to a break. What do you think? The states or the federal government?
JONESWell, I agree with Rob that a lot of the innovation is happening in the states. And one of the things -- one of the ways that the federal government can get out of the way is to give states the opportunity, the option to toll existing lanes of interstate highways for the purpose of rebuilding those interstate highways. The federal government hasn't increased the gas tax since 1993. They've contributed $50 billion from general funds into the highway trust fund in the last five years. It's time to give states flexibility to use tolling. It's one of the tools in the toolbox. It's a debate that states ought to be able to have at the state level.
REHMPatrick Jones. He's executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your calls, read your email. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd as we talk about the transportation system around the country, what's needed in the way of repairs, upgrades for bridges, highways, here's an email from Bill Wright, who is the commissioner of public works in the Ontario County in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He says, "What's lost in the discussion is the impact of the federal transportation programs known as MAP-21, an impact on local governments in New York.
REHM"Local government owns 50 percent of bridges, 85 percent of miles driven are on local roads, yet Congress pushed a drastic change in funding priorities by moving most funds in the interstate system, that is the National Highway Program. This left local government virtually unable to compete for remaining funding.
REHM"In Ontario County I, Bill Wright, have four bridges designed with federal money that have no construction funds available. My fear is for the future. If we don't change MAP-21, the percentage of bridges deemed structurally deficient will clearly rise." What do you think, Robert?
PUENTESI think Bill is exactly right. And one, this is exactly the theme we were talking about earlier. One thing the federal government can do is to provide that flexibility. So the money that's coming down to the states and to the metropolitan areas and the cities and the counties, should be able to be used based on the needs and the priorities of places. And if Bill thinks that there's money that needs to go to fixing the bridges that he's got that are a priority, he should be able to do that.
REHMHe goes on to say, "With the reauthorization of MAP-21 coming this year, will we get a return where local city, county and town infrastructure gets considered for funding? Federal and states raise the gas taxes. We need to be a partner and frankly, we are not."
REHMAnd he ends by saying, "By the way, no private company is interested in most, if any of the bridges in this county, especially my 73 bridges here in Ontario County or the over 400 bridges in Steuben County. Tolls and private/public partnership may address the big projects, but that will not keep the system anywhere near healthy." Chris?
EDWARDSI disagree with Bill's thrust. I think funding for the local roads that he's concerned about and the local bridges should be funded locally or at the New York State level. Why should taxpayers in California and Texas pay for bridges and fix-ups in New York? They've got their own problems. The interstate highway system, passed in the 1956 bill under Eisenhower, originally only focused on the interstate system because the federal government has a role in interstate commerce.
EDWARDSThe federal government -- and so the federal system, unfortunately from my point of view, has been expanded and expanded over time. It funds more and more highways and local roads and the like. I think that's a mistake. I think the federal government ought to focus on just, you know, the true national system, the interstate highways system. And leave local funding to local governments.
REHMBut, Chris, aren't we still one country?
EDWARDSRight. But the question is who can best solve local problems. Bill knows the problem in his neighborhood and his city better than politicians who sit on committees in Washington.
BAXANDALLWell, as you heard Ms. Johnson say earlier, the money that's from the federal government gets used for projects that get chosen by states and locality. So this is largely a non-issue. It is true that the federal government eliminated a dedicated bridge program in the last highway and transportation bill. And that is an issue that your emailer may be referring to. There is something that you were just referring to, about us being all one country.
BAXANDALLAnd what you do find is that when you let the states or the public/private partnerships just decide to do this themselves, what they do is very interesting. They take the money from the other state. So what they do is you find the biggest holes go on the highways that are coming from people from another state. So in New Jersey, when they set up the big tolls, they do from the people coming from New York or from Philadelphia.
BAXANDALLAnd there is a reason that we have, you know, a national commerce clause. There is a reason why these things are knit together. What happens on one road affects another road. What happens in one state affects another state.
JOHNSONI love the email that you read because, to me, it's emblematic of a couple of the holes in some of the solutions, the creative solutions that are out there, in terms of funding the transportation system. One is that, as he noted, you know, private companies are not interested in investing in bridges in Ontario County. Lots of the country is like that. Probably 85 percent of the country are in places where they're going to need some kind of government funding to keep the transportation system going
JOHNSONPublic/private partnerships are great in some areas, particularly urban areas. But that's not the entire part of the country. But the other thing that I think is interesting about what he said is that we have been seeing, or at least I have been noticing, on the part of local municipalities and mayors, complaints about not being able to determine how they get the transportation money that comes down from the state.
JOHNSONSo it's funneled from the federal government to the states. And then the states set their priorities. And what happens is that you've got local mayors and you've got people who are running, you know, 400 bridges in their county, they're saying -- they have their own priorities, but the priorities of how to spend are being done by the state. So this is something that -- it becomes this real tug of war inside the federal government, inside the Congress. And, you know, you can see how nobody winds up being happy in the end.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones and go to Eric, in Hartford, Vt. Good morning. You're on the air.
ERICGood morning. I had a question specifically about one particular bridge. The Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the Ohio River in -- between Ohio and Kentucky. Two interstates use this bridge, I-71, which runs from the Great Lakes to I don't know where. And I-75, which is one of the major north/south arteries of the United States, running from Canada down to the southern tip of Florida.
ERICMy whole life this bridge has been -- I don't think it's been repaired in my entire life. In places it's actually, literally patched with plywood. And I understand that one of the problems holding up repairing this bridge is that Kentucky and Ohio have been asked to shoulder this burden. You know, both states suffered disproportionately during the financial crisis.
ERICAlso, one of the proposed solutions is to make a toll bridge, which seems unfair to local traffic because it's the only bridge connecting Cincinnati, Ohio, with its airport, which is actually located in Kentucky. And it's spans Cincinnati to Covington, Ky. Covington is a relatively poor community, most of the citizens of that town use the bridge to get to work in Ohio.
ERICSo I just want to know why the states are being asked to -- these two states are being asked to shoulder this burden for traffic that six different states use. And, you know, why these two communities are being asked to shoulder that burden.
ERICAnd if there's any plans to repair it.
REHMAll right. Let's first start with Patrick Jones. Do you have a comment there?
JONESWell, first of all, I think the caller laid out a very interesting challenge here, that sort of points to the entire dynamic of where does the money come from, who pays, who benefits, etcetera. These are all very important questions that we need to address as a county. There are plans on the table to rebuild this bridge as a toll bridge, and to, you know, toll-backed financing in the range of $3 billion.
JONESAnd Governor Beshear of Kentucky has said earlier this year or late last year that there isn't any major bridge project in this country that will be built without toll funding. So I think this is probably the way it's going to happen. This is probably the way we're going to see other major projects in this projects in this country done because of the insufficiency of federal funding to do major projects like this.
EDWARDSI'll give you an interesting example of a bridge project which I think is a model that other states should look at. A number of years ago there's a bridge that was closed down across the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Va. A private engineering company, called Figg Engineering, went out and got private investors, raised $140 million. They built a completely private bridge.
EDWARDSNo federal, state or local subsidies. It opened last year in Virginia. $140 million, they charge tolls electronically. The tolls will be used to pay back the bond costs over a number of decades. So where their -- you can't do that with every bridge. Many bridges you can't. You need government involvement, but where we can get private involvement like that, unsubsidized, I think we should because it -- you get efficiency, you get better management under -- with the private bridge. And it saves government budgets.
REHMI'll bet there are more people in this country who remember Congressional authorization of the bridge to nowhere than remember any other problem…
REHM…in this country. Fawn?
JOHNSONWell, and I'm glad you bring that up because this is one of the things that's made actually reauthorizing the transportation bill so difficult in the last five years, is that because of the bridge to nowhere, which was this bridge in Alaska that sort of was the poster child for earmarks that powerful Congressman -- in this case it was Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska who managed to funnel to their home states.
JOHNSONAnd what wound up happening was the House Republicans finally just said we can't have these as part of the transportation bill. That was the energy that allowed those bills to pass over the last 20 years. And that particular tool, for the people who are writing the bill is now gone. Now, I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, but what that does is that means that it's very difficult to find consensus because just as if you've been listening on this program, you hear people complaining about how rich states are sending money to poor states, etcetera, etcetera.
JOHNSONThat all used to be smoothed over by, you know, basically helping our commissioner in Ontario County with a bridge or two. And that way it kind of appeased the -- but they don't have that now. Which makes it even more difficult, on top of the fact that they don't have any money to spend. So, you know, they're kind of in a box.
REHMTo Pensacola, Fla. Hi, Kirk. You're on the air.
KIRKHello, thank you. Yes. And my question had to do with the capability for the people that are getting the bridges built in a timely manner to discreetly inspect the bridges and to inspect materials that go into them in a way that works for the taxpayers.
KIRKAnd I really don't see that right now. I mean, that's…
REHMIt's an interesting question, how often, how frequently, how carefully bridges are actually being inspected, Fawn.
JOHNSONYeah, and I think the -- we don't actually have -- at least I don't have an answer about what the right way to do it is, how often and how it's done. I mean, one of the things that we spend a lot of time debating here is that the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a grade to the American's infrastructure every year. This last year it was a D plus. They do that a lot, but it's important to remember that these are engineers.
JOHNSONAnd, you know, for them an A is perfect. It's a structurally sufficient bridge, and, you know, I think that for the members of the public, how much do you want to pay to get an A bridge everywhere? How much do you want to pay to inspect bridge everywhere? We don't quite know the answers to all these questions, but I do think that the caller makes a point that we do need to be having them inspected because the last thing you want is to say, "Oh, we should have inspected a bridge," after it collapses.
REHMWell, exactly. Exactly. Phineas?
BAXANDALLWell, I think something like bridges is difficult. There was a proposed transportation bill that had failed back around 2010, which would have -- had a lot more specification about how often and what the qualifications of engineers, things of that thing, which was led by Congressman Oberstar from Minnesota, motivated partly from the Minnesota bridge collapse, that bridge, which, by the way, is from 1967. But one of the things that makes repairs so difficult is politically nobody gets strokes about something being repaired.
BAXANDALLIf anything people complain about the orange cones being up. Nobody gives a politician credit for having, you know, a bridge not collapse in their district. You know, what politicians get credit for is building some shiny new highway. And we continue to get probably too many of these shiny new highways instead of putting the money to repairing what we do have and investing in new things like public transit.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And finally, to Jay, in North Branford, Conn. You're on the air.
JAYThanks for taking my call.
JAYI'd like to draw a line between the decline of the middle class, the war on collective bargaining, the rise in -- of the consolidation of wealth at the top and the failure of government to maintain our national infrastructure in general. I'm just worried that the poor and what's left of the middle class will be on the hook for the bill while the rich get a pass. And I don't understand how we move forward as a nation with this current socioeconomic scheme.
REHMWhat do you think, Robert?
PUENTESWell, I think that this is -- what we need to do in this country going forward, we need to stop thinking of these as transportation investments by themselves. We need to think about what their designed to do. We know that connecting low-income workers to jobs and opportunity is a major priority in cities, metro areas all across the country.
PUENTESIf we then think about those investments as ways to improve that, whether it's by transit or other modes, then we can make sure that low-income workers are getting to the opportunities they need, work, education, you know, whatever it's going to be. That reorients the entire discussion. It's no longer a discussion from an engineering perspective about what we need to do. Then it's a social and an economic priority that has real impacts on real peoples' lives.
REHMBut if they have to pay tolls wherever they go, Patrick Jones, there is a burden that is shifted.
JONESWell, Diane, I think it's important to point out that as we talk about this federal and state funding structure and local funding structure, these roads and bridges and tunnels are owned by the states and by the localities. And there is a greater movement in this country to see that the users of these facilities pay for them. We know that 84 percent of people who are polled say that they would prefer that roads be -- have the option of being tolled or that they be tolled on a regular basis.
JONESSo, you know, you're going to pay for your roads and bridges either through taxes or through tolls. The advantage of tolls is that you can see where the money is going, there is less diversion than if you have the fuel tax, which at the state level is diverted many, many -- to many different causes. So people have to understand that we're going to need to pay for our infrastructure, regardless of public/private partnerships and the investment of private capital up front, ultimately the users of the facilities will have to pay.
REHMAnd with that we'll have to end our discussion. I want to thank you all so much for joining us. Patrick Jones, Phineas Baxandall, Fawn Johnson, Chris Edwards, Robert Puentes, let's hope something gets done. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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