Highway Funding, Work Zone Safety Draw Federal Attention

By Curt Grandia | September 28, 2010

How do we best meet the growing needs of our deteriorating transportation system, particularly in the face of skyrocketing costs for materials?

In recent testimony before the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Senior Vice President Steve Massie called for the creation of a highway revenue commission and dedicated state trust funds to be used solely for highway improvements.

"We have material price inflation eating more than 30 cents of every dollar in just the last four years and the growing threat that the cost of labor, which has been relatively stable over the same four-year period, will begin to rise," warned Massie, CEO of a Virginia construction company. "We also have the danger that the highway trust fund could run a significant deficit in the near future. This convergence will exacerbate the funding gap and our ability to meet the needs of our already congested and deteriorating highway system."

According to AGC's Chief Economist Ken Simonson, since early 2004 the financial viability of all types of construction projects has been jeopardized by sudden, steep and generally unanticipated price spikes affecting numerous key materials. But no construction segment has been affected as much as highway builders, Massie said.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that the consumer price index for all urban consumers, the most widely used measure of inflation, has varied only moderately over the past three years. During the same period, however, the costs of highway construction materials, represented by the price index for highway and street construction, have risen three to four times as fast each year. The data show the cumulative change in the consumer price index from September 2003 to September 2006 was a 9.6-percent increase, while the cumulative change in the cost of highway construction materials was a 35.9-percent increase.

Massie called for the creation of a revenue commission, similar to that of the postal rate commission, to fund surface transportation investment. The commission would meet regularly, evaluate revenue options and establish a transportation program levy for one to two years in advance.

Massie also suggested the idea of creating dedicated state trust funds to be used for highway improvements. He said the funds should be fire walled like the federal highway trust fund so that revenues could only be used for transportation purposes. Massie said the federal government should establish an incentive or penalty provision that would withhold a portion of the state's annual apportionment for not establishing a dedicated fund.

Like highway funding, work zone safety is another issue that we all need to keep front and center. Despite the fact that more than 1,000 people are killed and 40,000 injured each year in work zone accidents across the county, it does not receive enough national attention outside the industry.

The federal government and the transportation construction industry are seeking to change that by launching a major initiative aimed at improving work zone safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently awarded a four-year contract to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association Transportation Development Foundation (ARTBA-TDF) to improve and expand the operations of the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse (NWZSIC).

With the additional support, the clearinghouse will redesign its Internet website utilizing state-of-the-art technologies to add video streaming and conduct online training and conferences, and improve the site's navigability by allowing users to search multiple databases. The clearinghouse will also host a bi-annual, national "Traffic Management and Work Zone Safety Conference" with the first to be held October 9-11, 2007, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in conjunction with Intertraffic North America.

ARTBA-TDF will launch new advertising, marketing, media relations, and other outreach activities to educate the transportation and construction industries, general public and media about the new services offered through the clearinghouse.

A board of advisors and technical committee, consisting of corporate and organization leaders interested in highway safety, will also be established to provide oversight and guidance on clearinghouse operations.

NWZSIC is the world's largest online library of information on roadway construction safety "best practices," laws, regulations, public awareness campaigns, products, and training and educational materials. More than 100,000 information requests are handled annually from industry professionals, state transportation departments, general public, and news media. Day-to-day operations are managed by the TTI in College Station.

Users can access free information, training programs, research and related services through the clearinghouse website at www.wzsafety.org or by phone at (888) 447-5556.