And I'm not just talking about potholes. More than one in nine bridges in this country is structurally deficient. At least 66,405 (11 percent of the total) are in sad shape and these are not out-of-the-way covered bridges that are rarely used. Americans have taken over 260 million trips over these derelict spans. They are simply accidents waiting to happen, like the one last month in Mount Vernon, Wash., or the I-35W collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people back in 2007.
President Obama is pleading with Congress to work with him in developing an infrastructure plan that would fund a four-year transportation program. It will not solve our infrastructure problems, but it will help. So far there has been little appetite by legislatures to embrace the concept. If they fail to act, the Highway fund will run out of money by August or September.
Historically, the nation's transportation infrastructure has been financed by a gas tax of 18.4 cents established in 1993. In hindsight, that has been woefully deficient in keeping pace with the number of vehicles that use our roads today. The problem is that raising the gas tax or requiring corporations to pay more for infrastructure (an Obama suggestion) will probably not fly in an election year. So, instead, Congress will do what it always does, kick the can down the road by coming up with a stop-gap funding scheme.
If you have ever had the opportunity of driving on the Autobahn, you might ask how the Germans have managed to keep their highways in fabulous condition while keeping maintenance required down to a bare minimum. The answer, my dear reader, lies in the American past.
Back in 1919, a little known War Department publicity stunt organized a 72-vehicle convoy that journeyed across America. It required two months to make the trip. The roads west of the Mississippi were so bad that the convoy averaged a mere 6 mph for the 3,200 mile excursion. Along for the ride, was a young Lieutenant Colonel named Dwight Eisenhower. It affected him profoundly.
Forty years later, as the 34th president of the U. S. , Eisenhower was finally in a position to do something about our road system. Starting in the 1950s, the Interstate Highway System was founded and developed 42,795 miles of roads across the nation. Once again, America showed the world what we could do when we put our mind to it. The goal was to get them down as quickly as possible. The problem was that these roads were never built to last.
Of course, this sudden network of nationwide roads allowed the American family to enjoy cheap vacations, see the country and make the weekend drive an American pastime. Combined with fuel-efficiency gains, the ownership of cars exploded in this country.
That was bad enough, but what the planners did not count on was the massive shift by American industry from transporting goods via railroad to shipping them via the nation's brand-new highway system. Roads that were of sub-standard construction (although good enough to withstand the damage of 2,000 pound cars) were suddenly assaulted by convoys of commercial trucks.
These rigs, weighing 80,000 pounds or more, do far more damage than 40 times the damage (the mathematical equivalent) of the lighter weight cars due to a truck's weight distribution.
When roads are not properly sealed, water (ice, snow, etc. ) leaks underneath the asphalt and settles in the base of the road, which is mostly compacted dirt here in the U.S. Big trucks constantly drive over these moisture spots driving the water downward causing air pockets that form over time the great American pothole. The Germans know this, as does every engineer in the world. So some foreign engineers and governments choose instead to build extremely thick roads with solid foundations designed to prevent mois ture from penetrating the underside of their structures. So why don't we do this? Because it costs more.
Obviously, in a country that groans and moans over the on-going cost of infrastructure maintenance, building better roads at higher costs is a non-starter. If we ban large trucks from our highway and bridge systems, then our roads would stand up a lot better than they do now. Good luck trying to implement that change.
Given that corporate America uses our transportation system to help turn a profit, (rather than simply commute to work or see Mom on Mother's Day, as taxpayers do); would it not be reasonable to ask them to foot a larger percentage of the cost of maintenance? Reasonable, but probably political suicide for any elected official. I guess we will just have to settle for potholes.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.