Harvard Political Review, 22 May 2016
Months ago, thousands of college students in the Greater Boston area—I among them— returned to school on the Sunday after Thanksgiving break. Living only an hour away from Boston, my family was confident that, despite crowded seasonal traffic conditions, our ride on the I-90 wouldn’t be that awful. After all, around Massachusetts the “Pike” is well known for its congestion. We couldn’t have been more incorrect.
What followed were more than two hours of back road driving, pulling over for ambulances and cop cars, and serious road rage from other drivers. When all was said and done, our drive to Harvard was two and a half times longer than a normal trip.
My experience wasn’t unique either. Nearly every student I spoke to lamented the bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was obvious that the roads simply couldn’t handle the multitude of cars. While, the Massachusetts highway system has come under increased stress in recent years, it is an example of a far larger infrastructure crisis plaguing the nation.
The Decline of American Infrastructure
It’s no secret that America’s transportation network is strained, especially its roads and bridges. Coupled with an unrelenting increase in drivers and deteriorating infrastructure, America’s roads are increasingly prone to traffic catastrophes like the one I found myself in during Thanksgiving break. As recently as 2013, there were reportedly, 254 million cars on the road in the United States. For perspective, in 1980 there were roughly 161 million cars on the road. This is a per capita increase of about 0.7 cars per person to about 0.8 cars per person. Today our roads have to deal with nearly 100 million extra vehicles on roads that continue to worsen. Even though roads have increased in size over the years, certain research indicates that more lanes may cause even more traffic. According to their annual report card on US infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded roads a “D”, accounting for factors like capacity, funding, resilience and public safety. The ASCE claims highway congestion costs the economy $101 billion dollars annually in wasted time and fuel. And no region of the country has felt the brunt of the congestion than the Northeast. With the exception of California, the Northeast dominates the list of states with inefficient roads.
Perhaps our infrastructure system is so strained because of its age. America’s crisscrossing interstate system was commissioned in 1956 through the Federal-Aid Highway Act. Hailed by then-President Eisenhower as a solution to an aging American transportation network, the Interstate Highway System has served the country for nearly 60 years, becoming the backbone of the American shipping industry and opening the doors to commuter towns.
But concrete and tarmac don’t last as long as a law in the books. The upkeep of interstates is becoming even more costly to the economy. As roads age, the funds necessary for keeping them in drivable conditions continuously increase. The older the road, the more expensive the upkeep. In Massachusetts alone, the Department of Transportation spent over $1 billion dollars in road and highway improvements in 2010, whereas in 2007 the agency was spending $515 million for the same purpose.
Why hasn’t the government stepped in to solve this growing crisis? The short answer is that, for both federal and state administrations, infrastructure has become a back-burner issue. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on how to best allocate funds for infrastructure and the unpopular idea of raising the federal gas tax have led to gridlock.
These decades of procrastination on infrastructure improvements, recently mocked by Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker, have put the nation in dire straits.
“Chronic underinvestment in the nation’s essential infrastructure will ultimately require a national investment plan unseen since Europe’s post-war reconstruction,” wrote Dante Disparte and Daniel Wagner, two CEO’s of risk consulting firms, in an Op-Ed for the Huffington Post.
So how could the government effectively predict, ease, and hopefully prevent massive traffic jams?
One option is to repair highway systems in large urban areas. Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) in has set aside millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements. “For Massachusetts to be truly great it needs to have great cities and towns from one end of the state to the other,” he said in speech this summer regarding the allocation of $75 million to MassWorks, a program for infrastructure improvement including “demolition, street improvements and creating parking facilities”.
Investments in mass transit systems like the MBTA in Greater Boston sound like an easy solution. However, public transit received a “D” grade from the ASCE as well. Use of mass transit has increased by 9.1% in the most recent decade. Updating and, in some cases, rebuilding these systems alongside the highway system would be a massive undertaking, which would undoubtedly have adverse effects on other aspects of the economy, including but not limited to increased congestion like during Boston’s “Big Dig” project in the early 2000s. Such disruption may force lawmakers to choose which projects are most needed, rather than tackle all infrastructure problems at once.
Another popular option includes turning highways into toll roads to reduce traffic or rarer cases charging drivers for driving in a High Occupancy Toll (HOT). However, this is already the case on many highways around the nation and many are unsure about the effects citing that it doesn’t solve traffic problems, it only offers alternative options for drivers. Even with tolls, drivers will still need to travel to work resulting in little relief for congestion. Adding HOV lanes, bike lanes in cities, and raising the gas tax for revenue also are viable options.
The answer may be “all of the above.” What is clear is that the problem will not dissipate. The United States will continue to see an increase in drivers and our roads will continue to age. America was able to solve an infrastructure crisis in the 1950’s and in doing so bolstered the American economy. The question is, can and will we do it again? For the sake of the economy and my rides to and from home in college, I hope so.
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