Last week's tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse is being cited as "exhibit A" in the country's infrastructure crisis. But anyone who drives on our congested, potholed highways knows that for decades the government has been failing to properly maintain and expand the very arteries needed keep our cities moving.
According to a recent Reason Foundation study, most states should be concerned about the condition of their bridges. Of the 596,980 highway bridges in the National Bridge Inventory, 147,913—24.52 percent—were deficient or obsolete in 2005 the report found. Minnesota actually ranked 5th best in the nation, with "only" 13 percent of its bridges labeled deficient. Virginia ranked 21st and Maryland 32nd, with 22.4 percent and 26.9 percent of bridges deficient or obsolete respectively.
The Interstate highway system is over 50 years old. Simply put: Many of our roads and bridges aren't equipped to continually handle the traffic levels or demands that the 21st century will bring.
The advent of real-time inventories, mastered by companies like Amazon, and overnight deliveries pioneered by FedEx, have transformed the Interstate system into a high-tech network connecting businesses and customers that rely on just-in-time deliveries. Today, trucks carry 80 to 90 percent of all goods, by value, and the growth in truck traffic over the next 20 years will significantly outpace growth in auto driving. We are not prepared to cope with such increases.
The Federal Highway Administration's latest report on U.S. highway conditions makes for grim reading. Just to maintain current pavement conditions and congestion levels we ought to be investing $79 billion a year; actual investment is $9 billion less than that. To actually improve on today's dismal performance - to reduce traffic jams, for example - could cost $60 billion per year more than we're investing.
Those staggering numbers suggest we must rethink how we fund and fix our roads. Unfortunately, the predictable responses to the Minneapolis tragedy have begun: a new federal spending program and much higher fuel taxes.
Both suggestions are off-target. The 2005 federal transportation bill doled out $286 billion, no small chunk of change. Before the feds hike the gas tax, government needs to prioritize spending, to focus on critical infrastructure projects instead of "bridges to nowhere" and thousands of earmarks. If Congress fails to enact fundamental reforms, taxpayers will be justified in rejecting gas-tax hikes.
For the major highway investments we need—such as rebuilding Interstates and adding capacity to congestion-choked expressways--there's a better way to pay. Texas, Virginia, and other fast-growing states have demonstrated the new model: highway public-private partnerships funded by tolls. In today's new toll road model, private companies compete for long-term contracts to design, finance, build, operate, and maintain major highways and bridges. In return, the companies recoup their investments by charging tolls.
Critics claim most drivers won't use toll roads or can't afford to use them because private companies will charge astronomical rates. Yet, mounting evidence shows drivers in all income groups are embracing toll roads because the time saved is often worth more than the toll.
The SR 91 Express Lanes in Orange County, California, was the first privately financed U.S. toll road in modern times when it opened in 1995. Since then over 100 million vehicles have traveled on the road. Last year, as most governments struggled to find transportation money, the 10-mile toll road generated $44 million in revenue.
Austin, Texas, recently opened a set of new toll roads. Last month, the state announced these three new toll roads are seeing between 30 and 168 percent more traffic than predicted.
People are tired of sitting in traffic – and they are willing to buy their way out. Toll roads are more equitable than gas taxes because you only pay for the roads you use and the private sector, unlike the government, builds roads based on where demand is highest – not where politicians or special interests want a pork project to go.
We can rehabilitate our aging infrastructure. We can relieve traffic congestion. And we can transform our roads and bridges into a 21st century network that offers increased mobility for individuals and businesses. But to do so, we are going to have to break free of the old model that relies only on government to pay for, build and maintain our highways.