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By Doug Bailey
| January 31, 2017
In the first installment of a new series on local infrastructure, the current state of area roads and bridges is examined, as well as what’s being done to help improve it.
The worst traffic bottleneck in Massachusetts is a nearly two-mile section of I-93 that passes through the O’Neill Tunnel and across the Zakim Bridge. This stretch of highway—created by the Big Dig project that was supposed to help alleviate traffic backups—costs drivers about 2.1 million combined hours in wasted time and $48 million worth of wasted fuel each year, according to the American Highway Users Alliance.
Trying to avoid this bottleneck, which the Alliance says is the 15th worst in the nation, by navigating city streets offers no bargain. Here, you’re likely to see motorists swerving abruptly to avoid crumbling potholes or hear the tooth-loosening sounds of metal on metal as some drivers sacrifice their auto’s suspension systems and plow through rough patches.
Scenes like these are repeated around the region: Another stretch of I-93 in Milton is the 28th worst bottleneck in the country, and a segment inside the Mass Pike Tunnel is the nation’s 50th worst.
It’s not just roads that are crumbling. A 2015 survey by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation found there are more than 450 structurally deficient bridges in the state, although the number is down from previous years. Every working day, nearly 10 million cars, trucks, and school buses cross these deteriorating overpasses. And then there’s the nation’s rail system and airports, which lag far behind other nations in speed, efficiency, and modernization.
All of this explains why legislators, construction unions, and, of course, frustrated travelers are heartened by the news that President Donald Trump has said infrastructure improvements will be a priority of his new administration, a rare subject on which Democrats and Republicans seem to agree.
On January 24, Trump’s administration unveiled a list of 50 infrastructure priority projects, totaling $137.5 billion in investment. Included in it was the MBTA’s proposed Green Line extension into Medford and Somerville, and a plan to widen I-93 from the Massachusetts border to Manchester, N.H.
“In the 19th century, we built the Erie Canal and Transcontinental Railroad,” said Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Obama. “In the last century, we took over building the Panama Canal, completed the Interstate Highway System, and set the world standard in freight transport and aviation.”
But our lead and penchant for building great things is gone, Foxx said.
“Our lead has slipped away,” he wrote in a December draft report to Congress. “We are behind. Way behind. The quality of our roads, for example, is no longer rated No. 1. We’re No. 16.”
The DOT in January said a nearly $1 trillion investment would be needed just to repair and maintain the nation’s crumbling highway and transit systems.
“We have an infrastructure system that is fundamental to the nation’s economic health and it needs greater attention and resources,” said Foxx. “Improving our nation’s roads, bridges, and transit helps create jobs, connects communities, and ensures that our nation is equipped for the future.”
How the country went from leader to laggard in road and bridge construction is fairly easily determined. The federal gas tax, first implemented in 1932 at a mere one cent per gallon, was seen as a fair way to fund road maintenance, repair, and construction. The tax has been increased just 10 times since the Hoover administration and now stands at 18.4 cents per gallon. The last tenth of a cent gallon increase occurred two decades ago.
In the meantime, fuel efficient cars, plummeting gas prices, and a political aversion to tax increases, have wreaked havoc on the Highway Trust Fund, which is facing a $1 trillion backlog just in repairs and maintenance, not to mention new and needed projects, the DOT says.
If there is any good news, it’s that 17 states, including Massachusetts, have stepped up since 2013 and raised taxes on gas. Currently the rate stands at 26.54 cents per gallon. Massachusetts ranks 29th in the country in total state taxes and fees on gasoline.
Partly as a result of those increases, Massachusetts is considered by some to be in a better place with respect to roads and bridges, a fact that might surprise drivers as they sit in bottleneck traffic or seek repairs for pothole-induced damage.
“We’re moving to a much better place, when it comes to roads and especially bridges,” said Eric Bourassa, transportation director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency for the 101 cities and towns in the Boston area. “We’ve decreased the number of structurally deficient bridges and I think the state has a pretty good handle on the needs of our state roads.”
The story with city and town-controlled roads is more murky, however, Bourassa said.
“A lot of local needs go unmet,” he said. “The [. . .] funding for those roads has not increased substantially for years.”
And that can have long-term implications.
“The longer you wait, the more expensive it gets,” he said. “It’s more cost-effective to keep things maintained than it is to fix the problems only when they get really bad.”
Bourassa explains why the cost of repairs to Boston’s Longfellow Bridge topped $300 million: “It was ignored for decades, which drove up the cost.”
How the state and federal governments will pay for the badly needed infrastructure improvements is still up in the air. President Trump has hinted that private investors should take the lead on rebuilding our roads and bridges. But some are skeptical.
Officials at the Atlantic Monthly summit in January said that while private investment in transportation systems can work, it is not a total solution. There are simply too many infrastructure needs that won’t pay a return or produce a revenue stream and therefore will fail to attract investment.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who co-chairs a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to encouraging investment in infrastructure called Building America’s Future, estimated that perhaps only 1,000 of the nation’s 60,000 structurally deficient bridges would have the potential to produce tolls that would produce enough revenue to interest the private sector.
“The other 59,000 are small quarter-mile bridges that are important to local communities, but have no ability to be tolled,” he said. “People are not going to pay the tolls. So you cannot do it with just the private sector. The public sector has to step up.”
The first step came with President’s Trump list of 50 projects and their $137.5 billion price tag. Who pays that bill is the next question.“I’ve had several turns at this question of how do you raise money for infrastructure,” outgoing Transportation Secretary Foxx told reporters last month. “It’s frustrating, because there are only so many ways you can do it, and then within the range of ways you can do it, there are only so many ways that are politically acceptable.”
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