There's a largely off-camera battle being waged over the U.S. highway system, one focused on trying to pry more monies from federal and state coffers not just to fix the current network of bridges and roads crisscrossing the country, but to expand beyond existing infrastructure in order to keep up with burgeoning demand for capacity. Much of this, though, seems to be falling on deaf ears, not only at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, but in Congress and at the White House as well.
Much ado is being made over national high-speed rail, “livable” communities built around light rail, bicycle paths, and plenty of walkways. Big money is even being devoted to construct electric vehicle recharging infrastructure in many big metropolitan areas, right alongside a major R&D push to increase big rig fuel economy and a pilot program studying whether increasing allowable tractor-trailer weight ratings to near 100,000 lbs. could solve freight capacity issues.
Expanding highway capacity, however, doesn't seem to be on the radar.
That perplexes a lot of folks, such as John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). While he says AASHTO fully embraces investments in national high-speed rail and mass transit, little is being said or done concerning the need for highway expansion, which still serves as the primary mode for moving people and freight across the U.S.
“DOT has been largely silent on the need for more highway capacity for freight and motorists,” he told me recently. “We need to make clear that highways are an incredibly dominant factor in our economy and society. Trucks move, by value, 93% of the freight in our nation and are projected to handle 95% of it in 30 years, while 95% of the U.S.'s passenger travel occurs via highways. Expanding highway capacity is not the only thing that will be required to meet future mobility needs, but it will be a principal part of what will be required.”
Greg Cohen, president & CEO of the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA), is a lot blunter on the subject. “We think the Obama Administration has a bias against highways,” he told me.
“This is not necessarily a Republican or Democratic issue, either,” Cohen explained. “In the last administration [under President George W. Bush], more tolling and ‘congestion pricing’ were policy priorities — and they posed problems for motorists and truckers alike. Now, it's passenger rail and ‘livable community’ projects that the government is enamored of.”
“Even with strategies to reduce traffic and improve transit, highway system expansion is critical,” added AASHTO president Larry “Butch” Brown, who is also director of the Mississippi Dept. of Transportation. “If most or all of our capital investment were made in system rehabilitation and little to none in adding needed capacity, road conditions would improve, but traffic would grind to a halt.”
But it increasingly looks like we won't be building more roads anytime soon.