Faced with that grim assessment, an elite group of transportation experts that gathered in Washington last week did not pause to ponder the calamity they foresee if the public fails to grasp hold of the need.
They had done that a year earlier in a report that was a landmark for depth, scope and bipartisanship. More than 80 transportation experts joined in the conclusion that the federal government needed to spend upward of $60 billion more a year just to maintain the current systems and at least $85 billion more annually on expansion to accommodate a population that has more than doubled since the interstate highway system was begun 60 years ago.
Already sobered by the reality that, at the very best, Congress might vote to keep funding at current levels — roughly $54 billion a year — the career transportation experts received another dose of bad news last week.
Americans don’t trust their leaders — notably Congress — to spend transportation tax dollars wisely and are deaf to appeals for additional spending.
“The overwhelming sense that this thing has become a scam is very compelling,” said Jim Mulhall, a political strategist who has done focus groups for the advocacy organization Building America’s Future.
Led by five former secretaries of transportation — James Burnley, Samuel Skinner, Rodney Slater, Norman Mineta and Mary Peters — the group gathered at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center offices in Washington for two days of discussion on how to educate and energize average Americans about the catastrophe they foresee.
They were told that they had some hope of persuading those on the political left and center, but that “conservatives are utterly convinced that there is waste and corruption, and that no money [more] is needed,” said Rich Thau, of Presentation Testing, who has tested public opinion on the issue.
“They think somebody wasted my money and [that] it’s going to something else,” Thau said. “You can make a good case for infrastructure [improvements] but people still don’t want to pay.”
The infrastructure issue has played large within the Beltway, where think tanks, transportation advocates and some members of Congress wave around data that indicate that gridlock and economic stagnation will descend dramatically unless trillions of dollars are spent on roads, bridges, ports, transit and aviation systems.
But to much of the rest of the nation, transportation funding is synonymous with pork barrel spending and boondoggles.
Advocates have quantified the issue every which way in at least a half-dozen major reports and lots of smaller studies that singled out one slice of the transportation pie chart. Almost 70,000 bridges are structurally deficient, more than 20 percent of flights at the busiest major airports experience delays, the U.S. risks losing competitive ground on other nations that invest more, traffic congestion threatens to strangle the economic viability of big cities, long-neglected metro transit systems are breaking down, and the foundations are crumbling beneath that fresh coat of asphalt on millions of miles of highway.