By Congresswoman Julia Brownley
Originally published in the Ventura County Star
On Tuesday morning, our nation witnessed yet another tragic transportation accident when Metrolink Ventura County Line 102 crashed into a truck along the train tracks in Oxnard.
Over the past 48 hours, we have been in touch with federal, state and local agencies responsible for coordinating the accident investigation, and continue to monitor the investigation closely. While there are many unanswered questions about this accident, one issue is abundantly clear: as a nation, we must address the growing backlog of transportation needs in our country.
As many residents of Ventura County know, this is not the first time an accident has occurred at this intersection. Nationally, the Federal Railroad Administration estimates that there were 2,087 accidents at railroad crossings in 2013 — with 251 fatalities and 929 injuries. And it is not only railway grade crossings that are failing. The 2013 Infrastructure Report Card gave U.S. infrastructure an overall grade of D-. Bridges got a C+, while Roads and Transit each received a D.
As members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, we strongly believe that Congress, along with state and local governments, must address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Between 2006 and 2014, the state of California received over $142 million intended specifically for highway-rail grade crossing improvements. While we believe the state needs to do a better job of utilizing these resources, we also understand that the backlog of unfunded local needs continues to grow — including the Ventura County Transportation Commission’s need to address safety issues at Rice Avenue in Oxnard.
Locally, the Ventura County Transportation Commission estimates that we have nearly $3 billion in unfunded major infrastructure needs, including $1.3 billion for local streets and roads, $60 million for intermodal port corridor improvements, and $800 million to $1.6 billion for highway needs.
If Congress still allowed earmarks, we could designate the necessary funds to build this overpass and try to prevent life-threatening accidents like the recent Metrolink crash.
While Congress must provide states and local governments with additional resources to address the growing backlog of projects, Congress does not decide which projects get funded. In the past, members of Congress could direct funding for specific projects in their district through earmarks. When the Republican majority took over in 2011, they banned all earmarks, instead leaving the responsibility for funding individual projects, like dredging, rail-highway grade crossings and highway construction, to bureaucrats instead of the representatives who know their district priorities. As this is not currently allowed, Congress is limited to simply providing additional overall resources, when possible.
In 2014, the state of California received over $3.5 billion from the federal government for highway, road and bridge improvement projects, but it is up to state and local transportation officials to decide how to best allocate these scarce funds.
Americans are rightly frustrated with our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, including increasingly congested highways and deficient roads and bridges. Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing commuters $121 billion in wasted time and fuel, or an average of $818 per commuter. If the status quo continues, congestion is estimated to grow from $121 billion to $199 billion in 2020, adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, congestion on the Interstate system alone costs freight trucks more than 141 million hours in wasted time, equivalent to 51,000 drivers sitting idle for a working year.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, all levels of government would need to invest a minimum of $124 billion a year to improve the conditions and performance of our roads and bridges, compared to $88 billion spent by all levels of government in 2010 on capital projects.
Congress faces many challenges, but finding a solution for funding the Highway and Transit Trust Funds must be a priority. Instead of another short-term fund patch that only delays tough decisions, we believe that Congress must work on a bipartisan basis to find a long-term, sustainable financing mechanism that works.
We need to see investments in infrastructure for what they are: investments in our future, investments in our safety and investments in our nation’s economic prosperity.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, represents the 26th Congressional District, which includes most of Ventura County. This is her first year as a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.