The summer driving season is upon us. For nearly 3.5 million Californians, who traveled 50 miles or more on our highways and freeways, according to AAA, it also served as a bumpy reminder that the nation must once again navigate a federal surface transportation authorization process in a deeply divided Congress following a brief 27-month reprieve.
As our representatives and senators grapple over the national budget, the public struggles to grasp the urgency those of us involved with building and maintaining transportation place on the need for real infrastructure investment.
Without a long-term, well-funded, sustainable funding source historically supplied by federal reauthorization, each day we are weakening the transportation building blocks that support American jobs, a robust economy and a healthy quality of life.
A recent analysis of the 2013 National Bridge Inventory database from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that nearly a quarter of a billion times a day our cars, trucks and school buses cross America's more than 63,000 structurally compromised bridges, including more than 2,700 in California. The most heavily traveled of these bridges are on the interstate highway system. With one exception, all are at least 39 years old.
In addition, TRIP, a national transportation research group, found that San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose ranked second and third worst, respectively, in the country with the greatest share of major roads and highways in poor condition.
Roads in disrepair cost the average driver up to $800 each year in "hidden taxes" -- vehicle maintenance, fuel consumption and tire wear due to the accelerated vehicle deterioration.
America must address its aging roads, bridges and rails, and our country needs to be more resilient against natural and man-made disasters. Yet the last time Congress voted to increase the gas tax, and therefore the user-generated revenue supporting the Highway Trust Fund, was 1993.
Since then, inflation has seriously eroded the fund's purchasing power. A federal program that continues at current -- or lower -- levels will extend a quarter-century underinvestment in our nation's transportation system and hamper cash-strapped states and their transportation agencies planning and attempting to complete major programs.
Here's where the rubber meets the road: If the trust fund isn't at least shored up by July, federal highway aid reimbursements to states will slow, and there will be no new highway or public-transportation investments in fiscal year 2015. Congress must act by Sept. 30.
So the current, aging system is underfunded and cannot meet existing needs, let alone that of a nation expected to grow to 400 million by 2039.
However, this is a problem of political will rather than of engineering. Our primary "investors" -- U.S. taxpayers, policymakers, elected officials, private capital providers and the business community -- must be able to envision and agree on the kind of prosperous future we want and the transportation infrastructure we need to deliver us there.
People are willing to pay when they can trust what they will get. Last November, 91 percent of ballot measures to increase or extend funding for highways, bridges and transit across the country passed.
So, there are reasons to be more optimistic than in the last several years. The Obama administration has suggested a $302 billion, 4-year bill, and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been drumming up grass-roots support across the country, officially unveiling the proposed GROW AMERICA Act April 29.
U.S. House and Senate proposals are expected. Many state governors are talking about the importance of adequate infrastructure investment.
HNTB works with transportation authorities in the Bay Area and nationwide to improve conditions and performance of the nation's bridges, highways and transit systems. Based on that experience, it's clear that funding uncertainty has a direct impact on how often state departments of transportation postpone or cancel vital projects -- and at the same time shelve related, valuable jobs.
Now is the time to innovate financially. And while we cannot rely solely on the gas tax, we do need to increase it in the short-term. It's time to change the process of how we plan and deliver infrastructure projects. Let's move forward.
The constitutional mandate is clear, meeting our nation's infrastructure needs is foremost to our interstate commerce, safety, security and global competitiveness. Our best-regarded elected leaders have supported infrastructure and fully understood what America would get in return for its investments: job creation, economic development, improved quality of life and increased American competitiveness in the international marketplace.
It's past time for our nation to make the proper investments. The American transportation network is the nation's backbone, and it must be strong, now and in the future.
Darlene K. Gee, PE, is vice president/Northern California district leader, HNTB Corp.