As Congress debates transportation bill, construction companies wait and hope
The multi-billion dollar transportation bill has run into deadlock and there's no off-ramp in sight. That has America's construction companies, which depend on transportation spending for a large part of their business, watching, reading tea leaves and lobbying heavily for the House and Senate to get their act together and get something passed. Soon.
The Senate and House of Representatives have produced conflicting and contradictory bills to fund transportation projects across the country.
The more than $100 billion bills are mired in election year politics and party squabbles about spending priorities, economic stimulus debt ceilings and deficit spending.
Brian Derry, senior director of the highway and transportation division at Associated General Contractors of America, has been lobbying for Congress to pass a bill, to put his members back to work.
"It's also in the nations' best interest to build things," he added.
But it's not just in America's interest to build for the sake of building. There are structurally deficient structures that need to be replaced, or at least shored up to continue operating without creating a dangerous situation.
A bridge on I-95 in Connecticut that carries nearly 200,000 cars a day has a "structurally deficient" rating, but funding is held up.
Derry said there's another I-95 bridge, in Rhode Island, that has been closed to trucks because the existing bridge is in such poor shape.
"They're currently rebuilding half of it on the one side of the interstate. The other side of the interstate still has the restrictions on the trucks going across it," Derry said.
Those diversions and delays lead to higher costs for goods and services across the country, he said.
Some $101 billion is wasted every year in the United States on traffic delays and congestion, or $713 per commuter.
Derry said for every $1 billion that's invested in infrastructure, some 34,000 jobs are created.
A lot of the bridges that need to be replaced aren't merely becoming structurally deficient because of poor design or construction, but because they've reached the end of their design lives. Structural engineers are given a life expectancy for these bridges, and they meet them, but any life after that time is just good fortune — and good design.
"A lot of these bridges were built in the early days of the interstate program, 50, 60 years ago," Derry said. "They were built to last 40, 50, 60 years. They've run out of their life. In addition to that, not only were they designed to last that long, but the traffic loads are double what anybody every anticipated. And the truck traffic has skyrocketed."
Derry cautioned, though, that we shouldn't worry about bridges summarily falling down. Their are inspectors and federal guidelines that dictate the minimum conditions that bridges must be kept in.
"When they find problems, they do take measures to shore up whatever the problem is. The thing is, we can only apply so many Band-aids," he said.
One span of the Interstate Bridge in Portland, for example, is 95 years old. It carries an interstate highway, I-5, over the Columbia River and is a vital link between Washington and Oregon. Its replacement is expected to cost $4 billion, at least, to replace both spans. The younger span was built in 1958 to accommodate traffic growth.
Builders across the country are wondering and watching carefully for progress.
"The federal transportation bill, in many states, funds anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of the capitali improvement budget," Derry said. "It's a significant piece of legislation."
Derry said passing this bill is critical for the U.S. infrastructure to keep up with its global competitors. In Europe, he said, they're spending about 5 percent of GDP on infrastructure, while the U.S. spends about 2.5 percent. In developing countries, like China, which has an ambitious high-speed rail project in the works, the spending is four times that.
"Those are the countries, of course, that we're going to be competing with," Derry said.
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