"And the Star Spangled Banner in Triumph shall Wave, O'er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave"
– Defense of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key
Political ads, campaign speeches, and mudslinging will dominate 2014, beginning in January and continuing until the November election. The money spent in the nation's 2012 campaigns exceeded $8 billion. That's $8,000,000,000! This year, more is expected to be poured out. If we engineers were in the media business, maybe we would be happy and see some of the dollars come to us. Oh well...
Articles in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) SmartBrief tally that each $1 billion in infrastructure spending creates somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 real jobs, as well as fixing some portion of the crumbling roads, bridges, waterlines, etc. The ASCE Report Card for America's Infrastructure says we need $3.6 trillion to fix it all. Interestingly, the Report Card says that for our 600,000-plus bridges, we need to increase the annual spending by $8 billion every year just to begin to make travel safe. Cancel the election, fix the bridges, and put 24,000 to 48,000 more people to work!
Our roads and highways also are disintegrating at an alarming rate. Congestion alone costs this country $101 billion annually, and we need to spend $170 billion annually to "improve current conditions."
The U.S. Energy Administration reports that the 250 million vehicles on the American roads average 11,640 miles each year and burn 666 gallons of fuel. That equals 167 billion gallons! The current federal gas and diesel tax generates $30 billion a year. The current federal gas tax rate of $0.184 per gallon was established in 1993 and has not kept up with inflation, making its current dollar value less than a dime. All the states add a tax amount averaging about $0.30 a gallon, so the total income from the gas tax is about $80 billion each year, or less than half the amount needed annually to "improve current conditions."
So, in this "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave," where are the courageous political persons clamoring for our vote who will tackle the needs of our country? Who will take the position of 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot and advocate a 50-cents-per-gallon increase in the gas tax? Who will advocate any increase in taxes on gas, though its price seems to fluctuate 5 to 10 cents weekly? Few would even notice a 10-cent increase, yet it would raise $17 billion annually.
I would like to think positively about the political year ahead, but I'm not convinced we have the leadership and management in place, or to be elected, that is up to the challenge. As a fan of quotes, Earnest Hemmingway's statement seems closer to my view of the year ahead: "The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency, the second is war. Both bring temporary prosperity; both bring permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists."
As our government is printing money at an unsustainable rate and we are stuck in a decade-long war, I hope we civil engineers can champion a brave candidate or two who understands that our nation will not be strong when our infrastructure is not. We have 11 months to find them, work for them, and see them elected.
David Evans, P.E., PLS, F.ASCE, is the founder (1976) and a member of the board of David Evans Enterprises, Inc., the holding company for David Evans and Associates (www.deainc.com), and the author of "Achieving Zero," a book on the life of the firm. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.