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Gridlocked & Grounded

Jul 1, 2016

July 4th is High Season for Travel Woes

As the nation prepares to celebrate our national holiday on July 4th, it is always in style to celebrate the freedoms and rights that make the United States such a wonderful country.

Unfortunately, for millions of Americans who plan to drive, ride or fly to their holiday destinations, they will celebrate those freedoms stuck in traffic, delayed at the airport or otherwise slowed by our aging transportation infrastructure.

This ironic situation developed slowly. After decades of post-World War II investments in roads, rails, airports and water systems, U.S. infrastructure was once the envy of the entire world – a visible sign of American economic strength. Over the last decades, however, that investment has stagnated – leaving the system sagging.

During this busy holiday travel week, Business Roundtable will highlight how our infrastructure is failing – and how the situation is hurting Americans, our economy and our place in the world. To illustrate our infrastructure’s condition, we will rely on data collected and released last year in our report, Road to Growth: The Case for Investing in America’s Transportation Infrastructure

Let’s start with that most basic system, especially important on long summer weekends: our roads and bridges.

Monday: Stuck in the Slow Lane

Americans hitting the road this week will not be surprised to learn that motorist demand is 43 percent higher than actual road capacity, or that 42 percent of major urban highways are congested. The only debate in the car – as your social media feeds pop with pictures of your friends already soaking in the sun – may be why those numbers are not even higher.

The cost of not adding road capacity? In 2011 alone, urban highway congestion led to 2.9 billion gallons of wasted motor fuel and 5.5 billion hours of delays. This cost the environment 56 billion pounds of additional carbon dioxide and the economy a whopping $120 billion.

Our bridges are threatening to fall down as well. In fact, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the nation’s 70,000 structurally deficient bridges “dangerous,” making it clear that the mounting toll of bridge failures (600 since 1989) is far from over.

So, if you find yourself in the slow lane this week, the only comfort may be that you are joining millions of your fellow Americans in the snail crawl to the beach.

Tuesday: Grounded & Delayed

Sometimes it seems like flying is not much easier – or quicker – than driving these days. Delays at the airport gate, delays on the ground waiting to take off and delays in the air waiting for a slot to land are so widespread that most travelers consider them routine. 

Once again, the culprit is too little capacity – fueled by slow airport construction and the reliance on outmoded technologies to direct traffic in the skies.

The costs are staggering here as well. The American Society of Civil Engineers reported that aviation congestion and delays cost the United States $24 billion in 2012 alone. Based on the projected rate of growth in passenger and cargo demand, this cost could skyrocket to $63 billion by 2040.

When it comes to flying, the high toll seems like the only thing that’s taking off these days. Find out more about how to fix our air traffic control system at

Wednesday: Stalled on the Orange Line

For many Americans, celebrating the holidays means staying close to home. In our urban centers, that means counting on municipal buses, subway systems and other public transportation to get to the backyard (or rooftop) barbecue. That also means a slow commute to your destination, surrounded by signs of age and disrepair.

Ridership on America’s public transportation system is growing faster than the overall population. This is a good thing for, among other things, the environment. In 2011, use of the transit systems avoided an estimated 450 million gallons of gasoline consumption and $20.8 billion in congestion costs.

Failure to invest in this national asset, however, is putting a severe strain on the system. The share of urban buses that are rated as “marginal or poor” has risen to 50 percent, for example. Right here in Washington, D.C., the once golden Metro system is sinking into a swamp of ruin and neglect. This situation only promises to worsen as more millennials flock to urban centers to launch their careers.

Thursday: Water Systems Running on Empty 

Holiday travel this weekend for a lot of Americans means heading to a place involving water. From oceans to lakes to rivers to the backyard pool and sprinklers, Americans are ready to jump in and cool off. 

However, the days of a first-rate water infrastructure – when our waterways and public systems set the global standard for quality and efficiency – have eroded along with public investment in those systems. 

Much of America’s water infrastructure is nearing (or in some cases past) the end of its useful life. The American Society of Engineers nearly flunked our national drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, giving both a “D.” Shockingly, an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage are discharged each year into America’s waters, such as creeks and rivers, largely due to rundown treatment facilities, antiquated pipes and inadequate capacity. 

Our nation’s sinking water infrastructure not only poses risks to the American public – it also puts the United States at an economic disadvantage globally. According to our report, America’s water systems increase costs for U.S. products by a whopping $33 billion a year.

Even as Americans enjoy their holiday at the shore, the economic tide is slowly receding.

Friday: Better Days – and Roads – Ahead 

When it comes to infrastructure, we can’t let the week leading up to Independence Day end on a sour note.

While they may not be quite as booming as Fourth of July fireworks, the economic benefits of investing in this national asset are striking.

According to our Road to Growth report, here are a few highlights of what increased investment in public infrastructure could do for America:

  • Up to $320 billion in economic output would be generated in 2020 if U.S. infrastructure investment were boosted by 1 percent of GDP per year.
  • 1.7 million jobs would be created over the first three years by an $83 billion infrastructure package. 
  • As much as $3 in economic activity is created by every $1 invested in infrastructure.

As Americans prepare to celebrate our freedoms, it is worth remembering that our transportation infrastructure is key to making those liberties real. 

To restore the ability of the traveling public to move freely from place to place, to help producers freely get their goods to market and to allow exporters to freely send their goods overseas, we need to invest in the roads, bridges, airports, subway lines and other assets that make America go.