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Congested Roads Cause Economic Slow Going

August 04, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Looking for a career in a long-term growth industry? Forget about computers, health care, finance and all the other high-tech wizardry that we usually think of as our ticket to prosperity. No, according to research from America's infrastructure designers, you should hitch your star to auto repairing or truck driving.

That's where most of the new jobs will be if the nation's roads, bridges and rails keep deteriorating and congesting, the American Society of Civil Engineers predicts in a fascinating new report limning the economic impact of current trends in U.S. transportation investment.

The ASCE previously has documented multitrillion-dollar deficits in the care and feeding of our means of getting people and goods around the country. Minnesota officials project that transportation revenues will be $50 billion below what's needed just to keep our state highways in their current less-than-ideal condition over the next 20 years. These infrastructure shortfalls are no different from the fiscal ones that we've focused on lately as a state and nation: They get passed down to succeeding generations as heavy restraints on economic growth.

Now we can begin to see where our failure to invest is pointing us.

"Continuing to fund improvements for America's surface transportation system at current levels produces a mounting burden of deficiency," the report notes. "This burden takes the form of higher costs of doing business, fewer opportunities for firms to invest and less disposable income for families."

Already, U.S. road quality rates a sorry 19th in world, behind such international powerhouses as Namibia and Portugal, according to the World Economic Forum's latest "Global Competitiveness Report." Railroads in the alleged "Greatest Nation on Earth" are rated 18th.

This is a self-inflicted shame brought on by years of miserly investment in the economic engine of transportation. The federal gasoline tax that built our interstate highways hasn't been raised since 1993, losing at least a third of its buying power while traffic congeals, pavement crumbles and bridges collapse. What's worse, to end billions in general fund transfers to highways, congressional conservatives have proposed cutting federal transportation outlays by a third rather than raising the gas tax just to keep up with inflation.

Of course, we'll all pay one way or another. The ASCE report projects that failing infrastructure will add $430 billion to business transportation costs over the next decade. For families, it means an annual double whammy of at least $700 less income and $350 higher prices for goods by 2020. The average driver's yearly hit for a dime-a-gallon gas tax increase? $60.

Keeping to our current course augurs 877,000 fewer U.S. jobs, $28 billion in reduced exports and a $3 trillion haircut in our economic output, ASCE projects. On the other hand, the report says, the additional investment needed to reverse the decline of transportation facilities—$94 billion a year nationwide—would create millions of good jobs, protect another 1.1 million of them, reduce yearly travel time by 180 million hours, save each family more than $1,000 a year and add $10,000 to U.S. per capita gross domestic product.

With stakes that high, the report concludes, "All levels of government, owners and users must renew their commitment to infrastructure investments in all categories. All available financing options must be explored and debated ... The longer critical investments to improve the operability, safety and resilience of the nation's infrastructure are withheld, the greater the future cost and risk of failure."

Now, some may argue that the ASCE is simply trying to hang onto its members' high-skill, high-paying jobs planning infrastructure. But the report, produced for the engineers by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston, says that business as usual will hurt nearly all economic sectors with higher costs of transportation delays and vehicle repairs, "draining money that would otherwise be invested in innovation and expansion," said EDP's Steve Landau.

In other words, unless we stop taking mobility and access for granted, get ready for a lot of exciting new opportunities at trucking companies and auto repair shops.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    August 9, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I read or heard yesterday that we have some 6,000 special ops forces deployed all around the world to seek out and kill “terrorists,”  their biggest accomplishment being the death of binLaden. 

    We have, since 2003, destroyed the social fabric of Iraq along with its infrastructure and are now working on Afghanistan and Pakistan as we seek every more “threats to American security.”  We have killed thousands of innocent civilians on this quest, but I have to wonder if we are any safer or if we are just creating ever more resentment of our presence and political interference.

    This is very roundabout, but wouldn’t America be much safer if we were investing in infrastructure and green energy than in killing people out of fear(or paranoia?)?  War spending returns zero to the economy; infrastructure is one of the paths to economic health that we are ignoring.