Monday, November 07, 2005

Prioritize highway operations, not construction

With extraordinary federal spending requirements for such emergencies as the several devastating hurricanes and the war on terror, Congressional conservatives are trying to constrain discretionary federal spending. This includes rolling back spending authority under the federal highway program alleging “pork” excesses. Congress brought the "pork barrel" charge on itself by directing funding for a massive number of earmarked projects in key Congressional districts. And the SAFETEA-LU law is massive, more than $286 billion over five years – lots of room for hiding spending. As former Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen used to say, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.” So balanced budget advocates are lining up with anti-highway environmentalists who complain that highway builders are trying to “pave over America.” While waste is certain (and certain in virtually all federal spending programs), we should be keeping a few facts in mind. We’ve added relatively few lane-miles of highways over the past quarter century while we’ve increased highway usage several orders of magnitude. And, while $286 billion is an enormous amount of money to invest in highways, the Federal Highway Administration says it would take yet another $100 billion -- $374 billion or so over five years – just to maintain the operations of our highways at the same level of safety and congestion. Even spending $286 billion, they calculate, will result in increased congestion because of growing demands of highway users. Most motorists already think congestion is a problem and don't want to see it grow worse. Add in another fact: getting money to build highways is a political winner. Newspaper photos at groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings and new roads has been a winner since before the days of George Washington. But that doesn't mean a construction priority is the best way to invest our highway dollars. The key point in all this is that we are focused on the wrong problem. Sure, we may need more highways, but we need to be spending a lot more time and attention – and probably dollars – on highway operations, not just construction and maintenance. Credit President Bill Clinton’s DOT and particularly Gloria Jeff, now directing the MI DOT, for orienting the FHWA towards operations. The federal momentum has been maintained by President Bush’s FHWA Office of Operations (http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov). This is the right idea. Let’s measure how well we are doing in moving people and goods safely and reliably from Point A to Point B and if we’ve exhausted our technologies in improving traffic flow, then determine what additional capacity we need to be constructing. These roads are being paid for by highway user fees (the “gas tax”), but highway users are more interested in service levels than in pouring concrete. Yet, in one state DOT after another, it is far easier to get the Legislature to lay out funding to match federal dollars to build new or wider roads and much harder to get authorizations for technologies and programs – like using salt to keep winter roadways safe and passable – that ensure motorists are getting the highest possible service from the roads we’ve already built. It's time we reversed these priorities and implemented an "operations priority."

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