Moving from crisis to crisis — for too long that's been America's strategy for dealing with the challenges of an aging transit infrastructure, from roads to bridges to ports. The result is a system that's crumbling and in desperate need of attention, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The massive study both looks at the current state of the country's transportation systems and forecasts the challenges that lie ahead.
"Over the next 30 years, we're going to have 70 million more people in this country, and all those people are going be trying to get someplace on top of the number of people we have," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told NPR's Morning Edition. "So the congestion we have today is expected to get worse, unless we do something radical now." He says that, along with President Obama, he feels it's important to make a "substantial pivot" toward investing more in the country's transportation system.
On the 5.5 billion hours we're spending in traffic
One of the statistics that comes out of this report is on the average year, people are spending about 5.5 billion hours in traffic, to the tune of $120 billion of lost time and cost — gasoline and other things. That's because the congestion is continuing to grow in some of our fastest-growing areas.
That doesn't have to be the reality going forward. Clearly, we need to make investments at the federal level, not only to maintain the system we have but to improve and build new capacity where we need it. We also need to make sure we're making smart choices about how that infrastructure gets built so we get the most throughput out of that infrastructure.
On how manufacturing will affect traffic
We have more manufacturing activity now than we've had over the last 15 years and we expect that to grow. We're expecting over the next 30 years, a 60 percent increase in truck traffic on our freeways. The bottom line is, if you're stuck in traffic today and your travel time's longer than it was 10 years ago, it's likely to get worse unless we take some very important steps at the federal, state and local level before it gets worse.
On his proposal to improve highways and rails
The president and I have a proposal for surface transportation — highways, and transit, and rail — that would use pro-growth, business-tax reform. Taxing untaxed corporate earnings that are overseas, and having those earnings come back home and being put to work for infrastructure.
It's a one-time fix, but it's also a fix that doesn't increase deficits and doesn't require tax increases, and allows us to basically double what the gas tax is putting into the system today. So we think it's important to make a very substantial pivot toward much greater investment.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Transportation is also a big focus this week of the White House. On Monday, President Obama proposed a 2016 budget that includes nearly $95 billion for the Department of Transportation, in part to pay for investments and infrastructure. The same day, his transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, released a hefty new federal study on the state and future of America's troubled transportation system. It's filled with data and also looks ahead to what might be 30 years from now, beginning with this startling prediction. In 2045, when it comes to gridlock, Omaha will be the new LA. The study gets our attention just with that prediction. What is that all about?
ANTHONY FOXX: Well, what "Beyond Traffic" helps to clarify is that over the next 30 years, we're going to have 70 million more people in this country. And all those people are going to be trying to get some place, on top of the number of people we have. So the congestion we have today is expected to get worse unless we do something radical now.
MONTAGNE: What about the condition of roads and bridges? We do always hear that the infrastructure of America has been neglected.
FOXX: It has been neglected. We have, you know, about a quarter of the nation's bridges are at a state of disrepair that needs to be addressed. And it's - in addition to that, you have rail systems, like the Northeast Corridor, that have shelf lives. And if we don't take care of those systems, they're not going to perform for us in the next 10 or 20 years. And you look across the nation at our airports. We still have a lot of upgrading to do, not only of the airports themselves, but also our airspace through NextGen, which is an air traffic control system we're working to implement. And so across the board, we have these huge needs. And if we meet them, it's going to allow us to move goods and people much more efficiently in the future than we do today. But if we don't invest and we don't make the right choices now, we're going to be stuck.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about a couple of the areas that this report focuses on. One is a competition, which never would've occurred to me, to be honest - a competition between freight and passenger traffic on the roads, between trucks and cars. I mean, why would that be heating up?
FOXX: Well, it's heating up because both the demand for goods in this country and the demand for goods produced here around the world are increasing. We have more manufacturing activity now than we've had over the last 15 years. And we expect that to grow. We're expecting, over the next 30 years, a 60 percent increase in truck traffic on our freeways. So the bottom line is if you're stuck in traffic today and your travel time is longer than it was 10 years ago, it's likely to get worse unless we take some very important steps at the federal, state and local levels to relieve this congestion before it gets worse.
MONTAGNE: Many would say that the real problem, in terms of fixing and planning ahead, is the way the federal government funds roads and a lot of transportation - the gas tax, which hasn't been raised in 20 years so now falls short of transportation funding by billions of dollars every year. So what about raising the gas tax? Do you favor that?
FOXX: Well, the president and I have a proposal for surface transportation - highways and transit and rail - that would use pro-growth business tax reform, taxing untaxed corporate earnings that are overseas and having those earnings come back home and being put to work for infrastructure.
MONTAGNE: Although, excuse me, but that is a one-time-only fix.
FOXX: It's a one-time fix. But it also is a fix that doesn't increase deficits and doesn't require tax increases and allows us to basically double what the gas tax is putting into the system today. So we think it's important to make a very substantial pivot towards much greater investment.
MONTAGNE: But let me press you on that just for a moment in terms of the long-term funding of these projects. It is not just certain Democratic Congress people who are interested in upping the gas tax. It's also the Chamber of Commerce, Federal Express, big businesses that are out there, very engaged with transportation issues, saying this is really what we have to do.
FOXX: Well, we've said before that if Congress has other ideas, we're willing to listen to them. But I think what you are seeing in this report and what Americans are seeing every single day is that we have a chronic level of under investment in infrastructure. But I think the piece that probably hasn't gotten as much attention is how we're spending our money, how it's actually going into the system that we're going to need 30 years from now, needs to be rethought. Hopefully, this report, which doesn't purport to lay out an action plan but, in fact, tries to help laser in on what the problems we're going to face are, is a critical foundational piece of allowing that conversation to happen.
MONTAGNE: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
FOXX: Thank you. Take care now, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.