Donald C. Fry: Crumbling Highways and Bridges Won’t Lead Us to the Economy of the Future

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If you drive any distance around Interstate-695, chances are you’ll cross a highway overpass bridge that is not only outdated but what engineers refer to as “nearing the end of its structural life.”

There aren’t just a few of these bridges that are badly in need of structural updating on the Baltimore Beltway. There are many. And this crumbling transportation infrastructure isn’t limited to the heavily used beltway either.

There are outdated bridges in need of updating throughout the Baltimore region, and indeed statewide. Here are a few examples found in the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Draft FY 2016-2021 Consolidated Transportation Program report:

-- A bridge carrying northbound and southbound I-83 over Padonia Road near Timonium was constructed in 1950 and has been identified as “nearing the end of its lifespan.”

-- An overpass bridge on U.S. 1 which carries traffic over a CSX rail line near the Patapsco River was built in 1930 and is listed by the state as “structurally deficient.”

-- A bridge on Crosby Road near Catonsville that serves as an overpass for I-695 was built in 1961 and is nearing the end of its structural lifespan.

As you can see from just this list alone, we have vital transportation links that are more than 50 years old. Major bridges take a beating each day, and simply aren’t engineered to last for decades upon decades.

Bridges aren’t the only transportation infrastructure that’s crumbling. Sections of many interstates also are in dire need of updating. Unfortunately as they continue to age and crumble, more and more cars hit the road.

This same scenario is being seen all over the United States. It’s one of the key reasons the U.S. has tumbled far down in ratings by a number of respected engineering and other groups when it comes to infrastructure. We used to be a leader in this realm. No longer.

The bottom line is this: Not only are motorists’ lives at risk on the roads, but we are losing our global competitive edge in business as we let our vital major infrastructure slip to  second rate and stay that way.

If the foundation of your home was crumbing and rated by engineers as structurally deficient, would you ignore it for a decade or more? This is essentially what we are doing when it comes to our major highways, bridges and roads.

State and federal engineers know where the road and bridge issues are that need addressing. They’ve been well studied and identified. Everyone’s in agreement that it’s a big problem.

The roadblock is money -- and the lack of a collective sense of urgency to address this incredibly important state and national issue.

To be fair, Maryland officials have plans to address major road and bridge needs, but a significant share of the funding for these projects must come from the federal government. And herein lies the hold up – paralysis and gridlock in Congress.

Instead of agreeing to a long-term plan to fund updating and repairing the major highways and related infrastructure, Congress keeps punting the ball down the field with short-term spending measures. This agony has been going on for years.

It reared its ugly head again this summer when the Obama Administration pushed for a long- term spending plan to get the nation’s highway infrastructure back in shape. But Congress only authorized a three-month spending plan. The plan expires, perhaps fittingly, just days before Halloween.

In 2010, the Greater Baltimore Committee convened business leaders and economic development professions from around the state to identify the fundamentals of a competitive business environment. One of the pillars identified in the “Gaining a Competitive Edge” report was a “superior transportation infrastructure with reliable funding mechanisms.”

Instead, at the federal level, we are operating with a “by the seat of our pants” approach to infrastructure funding and, yes, that’s scary -- and dangerous.

This Monday, the Greater Baltimore Committee will hold another in its long-line of Transportation Summits. Guest speakers and top transportation and public works experts, including U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, will discuss and debate solutions to this confounding legislative gridlock over a fundamental economic issue as keeping our highways transportation network in top notch condition.

The GBC has championed this issue for almost a decade because modern and reliable transportation networks and options are key elements of a robust and competitive economy.

The Baltimore region and its many top industries and companies are uniquely positioned on the East Coast of the United States between major commercial and corporate centers, which supports an untold number of jobs. The region is just hours by interstate to vital economic hubs in the Midwest as well.

When you think of all the small business and large companies using our major highways and bridges and just how vital these links are to them, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a transportation issue. It’s a vital commerce issue too.

The Baltimore region would benefit greatly from a determination and resolve by elected and other officials to come to an agreement soon to make our major highway and bridge networks first class in the nation, if not the world.

This is as it should be. Indeed, such a network might serve as a showcase for how to transform a neglected transportation infrastructure into a model that puts the region at the forefront of the fast-moving global economy.

Learn more about the GBC Transportation Summit

Register for the Summit

Don Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.