The open road is dying. Not fortunate enough to suffer a single cataclysmic blow, the nation’s web of transportation — highways, bridges, rail lines, metro transit — is instead slowly rotting away.

The problem with this “slow, painful deterioration over a long time,” says Mortimer Downey, chairman of Pb Consult Inc. in Washington, D.C., is that it gives the government and the people a long time to put off repairing infrastructure. And as is happening right now, the ground is literally wasting away under our wheels.

Downey will be the keynote speaker at the Woodrow Wilson School’s “Transportation and Infrastructure Issues for the Next Decade” forum, held by the school’s Policy Institute for the Region (PRIOR) on Friday, March 6, at 8 a.m. in Dodds Auditorium. To register for this free forum visit www.princeton.edu/prior.

The PRIOR forum will feature three panels discussing an array of transportation and infrastructure issues. The forum also features an address by Anthony Coscia, chairman of the board for the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey.

Downey, who served as deputy secretary of transportation in Bill Clinton’s administration, was part of the Obama transition team in charge of evaluating the state of federal policy on all aspects of transportation. While Downey calls the experience “a good assignment because we just got to ask all the questions,” he wonders about the answers. He is optimistic that the problem can be solved, especially with Barack Obama having a commitment to infrastructure. “How he’ll come up with the money I don’t know,” Downey says. “He promised something, so he’ll have to come up with a way to do it.”

The money. It is not as if the federal government has ignored the problem. In 2005 the latest version of the oft-revamped Transportation Equity Act — in this case SAFE-TEA — allotted nearly $265 billion to fixing crumbling roads, rusting rail lines, and fracturing bridges.

And the money was used, Downey says. And used properly. But it wasn’t enough to hold on for the life of the bill. SAFE-TEA expires in September, but the fund ran dry a full year before it was supposed to. This past September the Bush administration signed an $8 billion bailout for infrastructure, which is, as Downey puts it, simply helping the system limp along until the bill expires.

The reason the well went dry is not due to mismanagement, Downey says, it is because return on investment was grossly overestimated. The Bush administration passed SAFE-TEA with the belief that tolls, gas taxes, ticket taxes, and other forms of revenue would be enough to keep money liquid. As it turns out, the rise in gas prices and the increased costs of travel kept people from driving. And, as in all ripple effects, the fact that people did not leave the house started to affect businesses — fewer travelers meant less revenues into vacations, entertainment, and retail, causing operations to scale back and fewer trucks to roll.

When the financial markets collapsed last September the revenue stream from transportation went with it. With expected money missing from the equation, the only thing to do was bail out the system.

The problem. Counter to a popular perception that throwing money at a problem will not work, Downey says that this is one avenue of the economy that has shown such action does indeed work. Downey sees the overall problem as twofold — first, we are not reinvesting in our current transportation system at any level, from inner cities to the federal highway system, and second, we are not investing in the future of the system.

This fix-it-as-it-comes approach has gotten us into trouble and threatens to keep us there. But the overarching problem is mired in its own ubiquity. Unlike almost every major issue, transportation and infrastructure are suffering across the entire spectrum. Downey, in fact, refuses to proclaim one area of transportation to be the most in need. “It’s all of the above,” he says. “It’s highways, its inner city transit, congestion in our metropolitan areas. It’s all of it.”

The closet Downey comes to picking the most critical area is when he acknowledges the potentially calamitous state of the nation’s bridges. A bridge failure, he says, is the most serious event given the destruction, he admits. “But if you let it go, everything can get to that level.”

Downey backs up his assertion that forking over money will help by pointing out a success he had when he was executive director and CFO of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the 1980s. At the time the New York City’s subway system was in terrible shape. The city invested $20 billion into the problem — another $50 billion has been invested since — and the system is in no immediate trouble.

Silver linings. All is not lost, so long as action is taken, Downey says. And he actually sees the totality of the infrastructure problem as a blessing. Since it affects everybody it should be easy to fix. Regardless of some rankling over how much money New York gets in federal aid — a fluid number, but one that invariably works out to give the state a higher percentage of federal money than it gets through its gas tax, and an issue that particularly frustrates Texas legislators crying foul — there is little to argue.

However, those issues that directly affect everyone will directly cost everyone, and that is where ire brews. The good news, Downey says, is that there are options. But they will all still cost you.

Primarily there is the president’s interest. Though President Obama has yet to release the figures, President-elect Obama claimed it would be “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.”

Other plans are less ambitious. The Bush administration looked deeply into private sector partnerships with public agencies, and Downey expects the Obama administration to follow suit. There is also the mileage tax — a proposal to charge drivers a per-mile contribution to go toward infrastructure. Though shot down by Obama, the president has announced “road pricing” (which Downey admits is “not much different” from mileage taxes — as part of his grand design to rebuild infrastructure.

Downey also points out the success California has had in funding its own infrastructure projects. There, portions of the sales tax go toward road improvements. The optimism in Downey’s message comes from the fact that such a tax cannot be levied without public support — in California it takes a two-thirds majority in a public referendum to greenlight such a plan. It resonates with people, Downey says, because “people see that they get X, Y, and Z for their money and they say, ‘I’m for that,’” he says.

Downey grew up in New England and graduated from Yale in 1958 with a bachelor’s in political science. He received a master’s degree in public administration from New York University in 1966.

Downey began his career with the Port Authority of New York (now the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey), where he served in several positions. In the 1970s he became the first transportation program analyst for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Budget and later was named to the Department of Transportation as assistant secretary for budget and programs by the Carter administration. In 1981 he took over the MTA in New York.

Downey served as President Clinton’s deputy secretary of transportation through both terms, making Downey the longest-serving person to ever hold the post.

— Scott Morgan

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