Something for Nothing: America's Roads to Nowhere
June 23, 2016
“The American people must realize we are going to have to pay to fix this system.” – Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institute
Photography by John Osborn and Jacqueline Romano
It was cold in the San Jose train station at 10 p.m., which was annoying, because I’d been sitting there for two hours. I was waiting for an Amtrak train, the Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle. My trip to Portland, Ore., was scheduled to take 17 hours. It only takes 11 hours to drive from San Jose to Portland and the train takes nearly the same route. So what’s the hold up?
On top of that, the train was late. The ticket collector said the delay was due to unexpected track work. Amtrak officials later told me the track work had been planned and the ticket collector misspoke. What she did know was that she’d be getting paid for overtime. Sometimes, she said, she wasn’t sure how Amtrak made money.In fact, they don’t. The railway has operated at about a $1 billion annual loss for the last several years. That’s an average of $32 per passenger, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. But it’s still less in real dollars than is lost on America’s most popular transportation infrastructure: roads. In both cases, taxpayers make up the difference whether they use the services or not.
This is not that surprising. As Amtrak’s 2011 Fact Sheet points out, “no country in the world operates a passenger rail system without some form of public support for capital costs and/or operating expenses.” The same is true of highways.
Photo by John Osborn
What is galling about the deficit spending though, is that it’s not enough. More than a quarter of America’s 600,905 bridges are categorized as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. “Structurally deficient” was the rating the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis had held for 16 years before it collapsed in 2007.
Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives our bridges a grade of C on its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Our roads fared worse. They got a D-.Our roads and bridges are in urgent need of repair and upgrade and we are not keeping up. We are losing the infrastructure faster than we are losing the money we spend on it.
“It is clear,” the ASCE report on roads concludes, “that the current funding model for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is failing.”
In a 2011 report, the ASCE predicts that the country stands to lose 876,000 jobs and that the losses will suppress the growth of our GDP by $897 billion if it does not address this failure.
There is a solution to this problem. It’s a fix that’s been suggested by experts in the field; a multi-pronged plan that proponents say would reduce our dependence on oil, encourage travelers to choose mass transit and help us bring our roads and bridges back into good repair. A commission appointed by George W. Bush suggested it. Obama’s transportation platform has all the same earmarks. There are even libertarians on record as being behind this potential solution. At the moment, we are not working toward that solution. At the moment, we are going nowhere.
Photo by John Osborn
“AUTOMOBILES MEAN PROGRESS.”
Photo by Jacqueline Romano
There was a 5-year-old boy sitting next to me on the old-fashioned bench at the San Jose station. The boy was going to Portland too, with his grandparents and his 2-year-old sister. It was his first time on a long-haul train. Me too, I told him.
He was coloring in quilt patterns his grandma had brought to entertain him. He wanted to know where the train was. Late, his grandparents said. This is why you only take the train for fun, his grandpa said. No point in taking a train if you have to get somewhere quickly. He’s right. This year, the Coast Starlight has been late 22 percent of the time. Some lines fare better, others fare worse.
Trains in the U.S. weren’t always like this. In the 19th century, passenger trains represented the latest in cutting-edge technology and the trains in the U.S. were the best of the best. Rail dominance continued through the early 1930s. Private companies ran the lines and made so much money doing it they became known as robber barons. But they had a heavy hand when it came to local politics and this began to rub people the wrong way. Also, service became less reliable in later years and passengers were annoyed at being beholden to rail schedules when it seemed rail operators couldn’t be bothered to run things on time. The public began thinking transportation infrastructure might be a matter better left to government.
“The attraction of automobiles was that they were not lining pockets of rail operators,” says Owen Gutfreund, a Hunter College urban affairs and planning professor.Those who could afford to buy cars were attracted to the seeming independence of owning their own vehicle. As cars got cheaper, more and more people wanted in. The irony is that car ownership turns out to be just as rigged by the titans of industry as railroads ever were. The car people were just better at hiding it.“
All these people that were going to be making profits, from building highways and adapting infrastructure, launched a coordinated and very arranged lobbying effort,” says Gutfreund. “These people” were the automakers, the oil drillers, the tire manufacturers, the concrete and asphalt layers. … Their idea was that free roads would encourage people to buy cars and car related products, because it would make the cost of driving artificially cheap. This in turn, would encourage people to push for an ever-expanding network of “free” roads and highways. And that is exactly what happened.
The crowning achievement of this lobby was the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. Twenty-five million visitors were treated to a giant, 3-D map showing how a network of interstate highways connected rural residential areas to bustling economic centers. Tiny cars peppered the winding roadways. Visitors saw the spectacle from an Epcot-style cart and when they left the ride they were given a lapel pin that proclaimed, “I have seen the future.”
The sponsor of Futurama was General Motors. The exhibit wasn’t a prediction. It was an advertisement.“General Motors has spent a small fortune to convince the American public, that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise,” New York Herald-Tribune columnist Walter Lippmann wrote at the time.It worked. By the time Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in the early 1950s, the clamor for better roads had become widespread. And General Motors was an openly acknowledged ally.
“We don’t want to try to stop that many automobiles coming — I am sure [General Motors president] Mr. Curtice doesn’t, anyway — we want them,” Eisenhower said in an address to the Highway Safety Conference in 1954. “They mean progress for our country.”
Photo by John Osborn
Photo by Jacqueline Romano
The government had funded road construction before; the first Federal-Aid Road Act was passed in 1916. But Eisenhower’s plan was massive, and it established funding mechanisms that are still in place today. The federal portion of the plan was paid for almost entirely with a new federal gas tax. This is still the primary revenue source for federal infrastructure projects. And the states became eligible for 9:1 matching funds for projects within their borders. This made raising the necessary money to start road-building projects much easier.
When Congress enacted the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, the greatest infrastructure investment ever footed by the federal government was kicked into high gear.The Highway Lobby was thrilled. And their success at convincing the public to back public spending that would fill private industry coffers did not go unnoticed.
“The highway lobby was not just a precursor to today’s ‘big oil’,” Gutfreund says, “but also to the drug companies, to ALEC,” and to other big industry lobbying groups.
THE FUTURE IS (NOT) HERE
I finally boarded the Coast Starlight at 11:30 p.m. and fell promptly asleep in my big recliner coach seat in the last car. It was raining when I woke up somewhere in Northern California. The train wove through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The Sacramento River curled back and forth beneath us. As I stared groggily out the window, we trundled along on standard-gauge track first laid in the 1920s. While it was pleasant, it didn’t match the smooth, fast rides passengers in Western Europe, Japan and China can expect on their speedy rail systems. In fact, we’re so far behind other developed nations, the 2010 World Economic Forum ranked U.S. infrastructure at 15th for overall quality, behind Western Europe, Barbados, Taiwan and Oman.
As an illustration: France’s TGV travels from Paris to Lyon (288 miles) at an average speed of 140 miles per hour. On the Coast Starlight route, the average speed between the two Oregon cities of Klamath Falls and Portland (280 miles) is closer to 40 miles per hour. And even the high-speed Acela runs at an average of only 65 miles per hour between New York City and Boston (235 miles). (All of these averages take station stops into
Photo by John Osborn
Photo by Jacqueline Romano
by nearly three quarters. A train traveling at an average of 140 miles per hour would slash the 17-hour marathon from San Jose to Portland to a five-hour dash.
Smaller upgrades could save lives on our highways too. U.S. universities have access to sensors that measure minute changes in things like strain and corrosion. In his book, Too Big to Fall, Barry B. LePatner said more than one engineering firm recommended some of these devices to Minnesota’s Department of Energy just months before the collapse of the I-35W bridge killed 13 people.
But there are some bright spots. A federally funded project in Oregon, Washington and California aims to create the first “electric highway” in the country.
The idea is to have a high-speed charging station available to motorists every 25 miles along the entire 1,400-mile length of I-5. The southern Oregon section went operational in March.
The director of the Oregon piece of the project, Ashley Horvat, says this kind of improvement is incredibly positive. Electricity is a local resource and a clean resource. Even if an electric car were powered entirely with coal-generated energy, it would be cleaner than a combustion-engine car. Horvat thinks the country is ready.“Where we stand now can’t be sustained so there are people across the country looking at change,” Horvat says.
We may be looking, but we’re not paying. Road construction and maintenance in this country is supposed to be covered by a gas tax. This means projects like the Electric Highway present a catch-22: Electric vehicle owners don’t pay for gas, so they don’t pay a gas tax either. State-of-the-art electric charging stations may well be the wave of the future and the best way to significantly cut emissions, but until we change the way we finance our roads they are a drag on our ability to afford those roads.
High-speed rail projects are also moving forward in many parts of the country. But progress is slow. In California, where the most ambitious project in the country is underway, communities have been fighting tooth and nail to keep high-speed rail out of their towns. Without the kind of public support federal highway projects enjoyed in the late 1950s, high speed rail advocates will have to fight for every inch of track.
PAYING OUR WAY
At 8 a.m., I made my way down to the dining room car and ended up seated with a guy named Dave and a guy named John. Both were taking the train because they didn’t have cars and couldn’t afford a plane.
Dave was taking the train from San Jose to Eugene because last time he rode his bike, and it “sucked.” Besides, his license had been revoked — too many drunk-driving charges. He’s sober now. But still.
John was taking the train because he took a Greyhound bus the other way. And that “sucked,” too. Besides, John didn’t own a car until last week when his father died and left one to him. He didn’t want to drive home alone.That was smart. Driving by himself from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Wash., would have cost John about $125 in gas if he had a car that got 30 miles to the gallon and could find gas stations selling fuel at $4 a gallon. That’s only a bit more than the $106 he said he paid for his train ticket. But it doesn’t take into account the cost of the hotel room he would probably need to break up the 18-hour drive. With enough advanced notice, a round-trip plane ticket from Seattle to Los Angeles would be competitive at about $225, but at the last minute such a ticket can cost more than $500. The question then becomes: how much does your time cost you? In my case, I was able to spend most of my day on the train drafting this article. Other jobs are not so flexible.
After breakfast, I went back to my seat where I found my fellow passengers discussing how late we were going to get into Portland. We hadn’t made up any time overnight and were projected to arrive three hours late. The other passengers said they liked being able to get up and walk around, or work on their computers, but they all thought riding the train would be better if it was faster. Or if there was an additional set of tracks to make passing simpler. Or if there were free brownies when things were running so behind.
But no one seemed to think the U.S. had enough money to fix these problems. And they definitely didn’t think taxpayers would be interested in footing the bill for high-speed rail technology, let alone sorry-we’re-late brownies. In fact, the passengers I spoke to weren’t sure that was a bill they’d be willing to pay either. Which hits on one of the biggest complaints about rail in this country: the government spends too much money on it.
The American unwillingness to spend money has affected our interstates as much as it has our railroads. America’s roads aren’t owned and operated as a single system the way Amtrak is, but they do share a dearth of funding: When the Highway Trust fund was established in the 1950s, the U.S. was spending about 25 percent of GDP on highways and transit. Now? A measly 1.5 percent.
We forget, but roads are subsidized too. And like trains, they’re not subsidized enough.
“If Amtrak got the same subsidies that highways get, we’d already have high-speed rail and it would already be cost-effective,” Gutfreund says.Here’s the thing: when you take a train, you buy a ticket. Mine for the Coast Starlight was $133 because I bought it the day I traveled. The ticket, I assumed, covered the full cost of travel: fuel, stations, personnel, track maintenance. Wrong. Ticket revenue covers less than half of Amtrak’s incurred expenses. Food and beverage sales bring passenger-related revenue up a bit, but not enough to make up for the loss Amtrak absorbs for every passenger it transports.
When we drive, we don’t think we’re buying a ticket because the cost is hidden. We know we spend money on maintaining our cars and gas. But the gas tax — wrapped into the per gallon amount on the sticker at the pump — is basically a road ticket.
Each time you buy gas, you’re paying both the state and federal government. On average, the total tax is 49.5 cents per gallon. Each household spends about $17 per month in federal gas taxes. The federal revenue raised goes into the Highway Trust Fund, which is used to match state funds (usually raised by state gas taxes) for maintenance, repair and new construction.The gas tax hasn’t been raised in 19 years, nor has it been adjusted for inflation. Today, the revenue from gas taxes only covers one third of the roughly $200 billion needed each year to maintain and improve the nation’s highways and bridges.
So we’re paying to use our roads, but, as with train tickets, we’re not paying enough.“People will call [a rail line] a failure if you build it and it doesn’t have enough fare revenue,” Gutfreund says, “but nobody ever says, ‘When are gas taxes going to be enough to pay for road costs?’”
GETTING THERE FROM HERE
In 2007, just after the Highway Trust Fund nearly went bankrupt, someone finally did say that. Fifteen someones. They were the members of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission (NSTIF). The bipartisan board was appointed by President George W. Bush and tasked with assessing the future of the HTF and exploring alternative ways to cover the cost of maintaining roads and bridges.
The commission spent two years studying the issue and, in 2009, made two main recommendations:
One. Begin establishing a way for drivers to pay for roads on a per-mile-driven basis.
Photo by Jacqueline Romano
Photo by Jacqueline Romano
(Like many other technologies we are not investing in, the technology exists for paying a fee based on each mile we drive. The same branch of the Oregon Department of Transportation that is building an electric highway has experimented with this new way of paying. A study conducted in 2006 established that, while somewhat complicated to enact initially, it can be done.)
Two. Raise the gas tax. Now. “We firmly believe it is a terrible idea to fund a transportation system with anything other than user fees,” said the commission’s chair, Robert D. Atkinson. “The system will be more efficient if people are paying for what they use.”
Tell that to the politicians.The NSTIF’s recommendations landed on President Barack Obama’s desk in February 2009. Even though the findings came from a bipartisan commission, Atkinson says, the Obama administration wanted nothing to do with any proposal to raise taxes. The report got shelved.“It was the not-invented-here syndrome,” Atkinson says.
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About The Author: Jacqueline Romano