CURRENT AFFAIRS By Eric Coleman
Oakland County Commissioner
National Association of Counties
2nd Vice President
Federal transportation funding will ease congestion and improve safety on rural roads
This spring Congress will consider legislation that will provide nearly $300 billion for our nation’s highways, bridges and transit systems. This highway-transit bill is important to all Americans because it will work to ease congestion on urban and suburban roads and improve safety on rural roads.
The legislation provides for a six-year program that makes available funding to state and local governments to assist them with their transportation projects. It is critical funding for county governments because counties own and maintain:
1.8 million miles of roads or 45 percent of the total road mileage in the U.S.; 256,000 bridges or 44 percent of the nation’s bridges; and 33 percent of the country’s transit systems.
What can we expect from the funding in this legislation? It should make our commuting easier and faster. The new funds will allow states and local governments to make investments in existing highways to increase capacity and introduce some technological innovations with the goal of reducing congestion.
Funding will also be available to make roads safer. The two-lane roads that serve rural areas are historically more dangerous. There is a disproportionate rate of fatalities that is 2.5 times higher in rural areas as compared to urban regions. These funds can be used for improved signage, markings, lighting, and intersections and for straightening out dangerous curves.
In addition, there should be more dollars for repair and replacement of bridges, which are deteriorating due to increased use and today’s heavier trucks. We all might be able to put up with some pot holes, but cracked decks and rusting girders make for unsafe or deficient bridges.
More and more Americans are riding on mass transit and they deserve comfortable and efficient vehicles, whether they are bus, subway or rail systems. Even if we never ride a bus, we all benefit from efficient transit systems because there will be fewer drivers and less pollution. The highway-transit legislation will permit the purchase of more buses and subway cars.
While there will be some debate on the final funding level for the program, nobody really disputes that our transportation infrastructure needs more investment. Our roads, bridges and transit systems need substantial investment as they become worn out through extensive use and a growing population. No one also questions the very close relationship between economic development and transportation. Good highways and transit systems means that employees can get to work more easily and products can be transported quickly and efficiently. Highway and transit construction also provides jobs.
Nearly all of the funding for the program is raised by the 18.3 cent federal tax on gasoline, which means it is a “user” funded program.
Last year, Congress debated this legislation but wasn’t able to decide on the final funding figure and the bills got caught up in election year politics. County officials and the National Association of Counties are working hard to ensure that the legislation is enacted this year. We are urging Congress to make the highway-transit bill a top priority in 2005. County residents and all Americans will benefit the sooner this occurs.