Transportation Infrastructure "Stressed To the Breaking Point"

Diana DeRubertis's picture

In an editorial posted yesterday in Popular Mechanics, national security expert Stephen Flynn argues that Americans are relying on decades-old infrastructure intended for a much smaller passenger and vehicle load.

"The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines-a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century-dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system-are at or beyond their designed life span." 

We have failed both to maintain existing infrastructure and to create a bold vision that should have carried American transportation into the new century.

Most importantly, we are expecting older roads and bridges to support not only a larger number of vehicles, but also a substantial upsurge in vehicle weight and size.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, truck registrations have more than doubled since 1992. Here are the national numbers:

Vehicle Registrations in 2005

Total number of automobiles - 136,568,083
Total number of trucks - 103,818,838
Total number of vehicles – 241,193,974

Vehicle Registrations in 1992

Total number of automobiles – 144,213,429
Total number of trucks – 45,504,067
Total number of vehicles – 190,962,228

These statistics represent the increased use of "trucks" (SUVs, flat beds, minivans) as private vehicles.

Once again, the solution could be to continue to build new roads to sustain an endlessly expending vehicle load. Or we could combine essential road maintenance with serious investment in alternative modes of transportation. That is, invest in rail and smart growth planning to reduce the burden of our car-obsessed lifestyles.

Diana DeRubertis is an environmental writer focusing on the urban planning field.




"we" could see that our assets can be monetized instead of made into a liability by selling them to investors who want to pay lots of money for them. In return, public sector gets lots of money, reduced long term risk and drivers pay more. People drive less with smaller vehicles because we price it accordingly, alter their land use decisions, and eventually we get a little closer to the smart growth utopia that you want.

Advocates have been suggesting the same thing you are for many years now and you are all making the same mistake. You assume that transit is somehow cheap and if you build it, everyone will just ride it with few other trivial changes. If the driving alternative is still better, you'll get little mode switch. It's not an investment if it costs a lot and you get little in return.

And all the smart growth planning in the world means nothing if the reality doesn't reflect the plans. Without the right incentives, those plans will never meet with reality. And personally, I don't think all people are "obsessed" with their cars. I think they are obsessed with convenience and making the easiest, most cost effective choice. Put a Phoenix suburbanite in Manhattan for a while and see how "obsessed" they are with their car after a while.


You make some good points, but might be overlooking one fundamental issue. By seeking ever greater profits, investors or pension funds who might purchase and operate privatized toll roads would understandably seek to maximize revenues -- in reality, meaning putting and keeping as many cars as possible on those roads.

For this fundamental reason alone, I think it makes more sense to keep our highways public. As far as I see it, the best way to shift transportation mode splits is still a combination of regional growth management, rapid transit on dedicated rights of way, and high quality medium to high density mixed-use development along those corridors and station areas. It is in these types of urban environments that the private car is no longer the defacto solution to people's "obsession" with ease, convenience, and cost effectiveness.

A New National Transportation Program

The Interstate Highway System has been built, but rather than lower the federal gasoline tax to a maintenance level or develop a new national transportation program for the future, Congress gave the transportation industry a bad reputation with the last pork-laden federal transportation bill including the infamous the $200M "bridge to nowhere."

I hope reasonable, forward-thinking leadership can prevail and do exactly what Ms. DeRubertis proposes. A New York Times poll found that Americans would not support a federal gas tax increase. They would, however, support a federal gas tax increase to reduce dependence on foreign oil and deal with global climate change.

Since heavy trucks are responsible for much of the first cost and maintenance cost of roads, I believe we should adopt the German Toll Collect system of "virtual" toll roads for large trucks using GPS technology.

Bill Barker, AICP

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