Rebuilding U.S. Roads

December 05, 1991

Only one major job-creation bill made it through Congress this year: an overhaul of the nation's highways and mass transit systems that marks the biggest commitment to transportation in the last 35 years. Rapid implementation of the $151 billion, six-year plan is crucial if the Bush administration hopes to use these capital projects to pump up portions of the nation's sagging economy.

Anywhere from 2 million to 4 million new jobs could be produced by these projects; 54,000 such jobs in Maryland alone. And that's not even counting the existing jobs in the construction industry that will be protected and other construction-related companies that will benefit from the mammoth capital program.

Beyond the pump-priming aspects of the bill, this measure stands out for its dramatic shift away from new highway construction in favor of renovating and upgrading existing highways and bridges. Congress, for the first time, also shifted emphasis toward mass transit alternatives and gave states flexibility to decide how money they receive should be spent.

That last point is an important one. It means that a thick layer of costly and time-consuming federal red tape will be eliminated and that states will have the power to shift funds to what they consider high-priority projects. That should speed the construction process considerably. It also should lead to more funds for mass-transit as states explore ways to relieve traffic congestion.

Nearly lost in the bill's huge price tag was a sweeping breakthrough on highway safety that Sen. John Danforth called "the most comprehensive package of highway safety legislation since the creation of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration 25 years ago." The bill requires air bags for the driver and front-passenger seat on nearly all new cars by late 1996. Safety experts estimate this could save 9,000 lives a year and prevent 80,000 head injuries annually.

With all the advances contained in the bill, it was unfortunate that Congress still decided to play raw pork-barrel politics with billions in taxpayer dollars along the way. A whopping $6.5 billion was earmarked for special projects requested by incumbents. It was quite a piggish performance.

Even with such an embarrassing blemish, though, this bill stands as a landmark for its focus on mass transit and improving existing roads. It is a down payment on rebuilding America that the president ought to sign into law.

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