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Voice of The Southern: Congress' cowards and crumbling roads

Voice of The Southern: Congress' cowards and crumbling roads

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Congress signaled last week that it will, yet again, fiddle while the country crumbles. The unbridled short-sightedness among federal and state lawmakers is costing jobs, productivity and quality of life.

The GOP-controlled U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee finally unveiled its $325 billion, six-year highway spending package Friday after months of unnecessary wrangling. The legislation's flat funding compared to the last package is nothing short of spinelessness put to paper. There's nothing partisan about building roads, fixing bridges or repairing bridges. Or, at least, there shouldn't be.

The federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax hasn't been touched in 20 years, while inflation has whittled its buying power. Vehicles have become increasingly efficient over that time. And just bringing the long outdated roads, bridges and highways back up to snuff in the U.S. would cost $3.6 trillion, reports the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). That's just shy of the federal government's total spending this year, and Americans funded the world's most expensive military, Medicare and everything else the government does with that sum.

It's that bad.

And yet, Congress — where re-election trumps policy — wants to dawdle.

Illinois stands to be especially hard-hit by the congressional weakness. It's the hub of American freight rail. The amount of cash spent on rail in recent years, which did little to stem the erosion, shows the scale of the problem here. Between 2010 and 2014, the feds dumped $1.5 billion into Illinois's rail network. The state poured in another $800 million. And yet, it wasn't nearly enough. The Chicago-based system is still nation's freight bottleneck, costing businesses billions every year. And, according to the civil engineers, the modest improvements to rail are the lone high point.

Illinoisans spent a whopping $3.7 billion in 2014 on vehicle repair and maintenance because of the state's network of grossly over-taxed, old and insufficient roads, ASCE reports. From 1990 to 2012, the state's population grew by 13 percent and interstate traffic spiked by 25 percent. Meanwhile, lane miles increased by just 11 percent.

And the Mississippi River, one of the country's most significant shipping lanes, is crumbling. Most of the Mississippi's infrastructure is long past its 50-year usable life, receiving a D-plus from ASCE.

At the state level, The Rauner administration has proposed spending just $8.4 billion over the next six years on highways. It's a $200 million reduction from the previous administration and even that wasn't enough. Officials within the Rauner administration have said it will be "extremely difficult" to take on new projects as the Illinois pension system drags the state toward insolvency.

Washington and Springfield are on the same page. No new revenue. No new projects. Gridlock for everyone.

The average American commuter spends 42 hours a year stuck in traffic, say researchers at Texas A&M University.

The federal gas tax isn't a magic bullet, especially as vehicles become more efficient. But it's an important part of a necessary funding equation that, over time, must rely more heavily on user fees and direct funding. Boosting the gas tax for the first time in two decades would be an important start. A couple cents per-gallon increase could make a modest, but necessary dent in the nation's failing infrastructure. 

But Congress once again bowed to Grover Norquist and the anti-tax demagogues waging a war on reasonable governance. 

The congressional weakness costs businesses billions and Americans jobs by the thousand.

Settle in and enjoy the fumes.

Local editorials represent the opinion of The Southern Illinoisan editorial board, which consists of Publisher John Pfeifer, Editor Autumn Phillips, Opinion Page Editor Jon Alexander, Online Editor Alee Quick and community representative Jim Muir.


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