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Editor's Notebook

While Rome Burns


Last spring, an independent analysis of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
data confirmed the obvious – the U.S. road system was in bad need of repair. Anyone driving the highways and byways can tell our infrastructure is structurally unsound. But, what would high-priced researchers do if they weren’t masters of the obvious?

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Regardless, nonprofit The Road Information Program (TRIP) said its review of 2001 FHWA data showed that 25% of all interstate and intrastate highways and main urban freeways are in unacceptable condition – riddled with potholes, crumbling bridges, etc.

While one might proudly point out that 75% of our roads were rated “acceptable” or "good," that 25% is really putting the U.S. on the road to ruin. And that was three years ago.

According to TRIP, road repair funding is also “unacceptable.” In 2002, the DOT told Congress that our roads were so bad that it would take nearly a 50% increase in annual funding – to $20.2 billion — to improve them. That was two years ago.


Between 1991 and 2001, overall travel on urban roads increased 30% – and heavy commercial truck traffic jumped 46%. And, by 2020, TRIP said, overall traffic will increase 42%, with commercial truck traffic leaping another 50%.

Gary Petty, head of the National Private Truck Council, told tire dealers at the Bridgestone/Firestone Bizcon meeting in Chicago that, by 2020, there would be 24% to 28% more commercial vehicles on the road than today. That’s about 1.1 million more Class 7 and 8 rigs roaming the earth and 18 million or so more tires pounding the pavement.

More importantly, Petty predicted that truck traffic would grow 11 times faster than U.S. road capacity!

Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have risen to this massive challenge – by arguing. For more than a year now, they have failed to reach any agreement on a new transportation bill. The old $218 billion six-year package is being extended until a new bill is in place.


The stalemate is over how much money is needed. The Senate says we need a $318 billion road program. The House says it will only take $284 billion. The White House says it will veto anything higher than $256 billion.

Now, $218 billion sounds like a lot, but that averages out to only $36.3 billion annually over the six year life of the old bill, and not all of that went for road improvement or capacity expansion. For comparison’s sake, and only for comparison’s sake, the U.S. has spent more than $160 billion on Iraq alone over the last 16 months.

So what does this mean to you? Well, bad roads mean good business for tire dealers. The banging, bumping, rattling and rolling mean more consumer tire and service sales. And, commercial dealers love road construction projects. If our present infrastructure is in such dire need of rehabilitation, it will take at least a decade to complete.


But (and there’s always a but), the further we get behind, the worse things will get. The National Highway System (NHS) covers 160,000 linear miles or roughly 500,000 lane miles of pavement. If TRIP is correct, 125,000 of those lane miles are in bad shape.

Today, there are 9.3 Class 7 and 8 trucks on the road for every lane mile of the NHS. If Petty’s prediction is correct, by 2020, there will be 11.5 rigs for each lane mile of current NHS capacity. To enjoy our current level of road congestion, we’d have to build another 120,000 lane miles of roadway over the next decade and a half.


All in, that’s 245,000 lane miles of road construction work over the next 16 years, and that doesn’t even account for repair work. Something, they say, has to give.

The first thing our modern-day Neros need to do is quit fiddling around and pass a new transportation bill. The longer they take, the worse the problem gets. We don’t need more traffic congestion and increased fuel consumption. Not at $2 a gallon.

Secondly, we need a national plan. We haven’t had one since Eisenhower planned out a 42,500-linear-mile interstate highway system, which took 40 years to complete. (It was only supposed to take 30.)


If TRIP and Petty and so many others are even half right about our problems, it will take at least another four decades of heavy roadwork – just to stay even.

The very backbone of this country needs some serious – and expensive – chiropractic work. Yet infrastructure improvement isn’t on anyone’s campaign platform or even in their fact-less election banter.

Perhaps it should be. 

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