Decaying Roads and Bridges

Orange County toll roads, public-private partnerships show how to repair and build infrastructure

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 the Reason Foundation’s 16th Annual Highway Performance Report, most states should be concerned about the condition of their bridges. The study reported that of 596,980 highway bridges in the current National Bridge Inventory, 147,913-24.52 percent-were deficient or obsolete in 2005. Minnesota actually ranked 5th best in the nation, with “only” 13 percent of its bridges labeled deficient, which means 45 other states have a higher percentage of troubled bridges than the state currently dealing with this catastrophe. California ranked 10th with 17.5 percent of bridges deficient or obsolete.

Our Interstate highway system is over 50 years old. Simply put: Many of the roads and bridges we drive on 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 Target, and overnight deliveries pioneered by FedEx and UPS, 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 the growth in auto driving. We are not prepared to cope with such increases.

The Federal Highway Administration’s latest biennial report on the conditions and performance of U.S. highways makes for grim reading. Just to maintain current pavement conditions and congestion levels we ought to be investing $79 billion a year; actual highway investment is $70 billion a year. And to improve on today’s dismal performance, to reduce freeway gridlock for example, could cost $60 billion per year more than we’re currently investing.

Those staggering numbers suggest we must rethink how we fund and fix our roads.

Unfortunately, the predictable, status quo responses to the Minneapolis tragedy have already begun: a new federal spending program to fix roads and much higher federal and state 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 any further, government needs to prioritize spending, to focus on critical infrastructure projects instead of “bridges to nowhere” and thousands of other “earmarked” pet projects. If Congress fails to enact fundamental reforms, taxpayers will be justified in rejecting new 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 direct user payments (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 that 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 here in Orange County 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. And last year, as most governments struggled to find transportation money, the 10-mile toll road generated over $44 million in revenue.

Austin, Texas recently opened a set of new toll roads. Last month, the Texas Department of Transportation announced these three new toll roads are seeing between 30 percent and 168 percent more traffic than was 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 the highest – not where a politician or special interest group wants a nice 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.