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Ex-DOT chief: Gas tax increase key to ‘big bold vision’ for infrastructure

In the candor that marked his terms (February 2009–June 2013) as U.S. Transportation Secretary and in Congress (1995–2009, R-IL), Ray LaHood told cement and concrete interests assembled for this year’s Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub) Showcase: “I believe that the time has come for America to say we need to be number one again, we need to fix up our bridges that are falling down, we need to fix up our roadways and we need to raise the [federal] gas tax 10 cents per gallon.”

LaHood delivered the Showcase keynote, “The Future of Transportation and Infrastructure,” on the Cambridge campus of CSHub host, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pointing out that the federal gas tax (18.4 cents/gallon) hasn’t been raised since 1993, when half of the increase went to deficit reduction, he also called for indexing the tax to inflation, noting, “If they had indexed the gas tax to inflation, we wouldn’t be having this debate today about how we are going to pay for all the things we need.”

More than 120 cement and concrete industry representatives attended the gathering, themed “Building for LIFE: Life-cycle thinking, Innovation, Fiscal responsibility, and Environmental leadership.” Following LaHood’s address, CSHub researchers focused on their work to address two key issues for infrastructure investment: Cost and environmental impact of our nation’s system of streets and highways.

The U.S. transportation sector burns more than 174 billion gallons of fuel each year, making up 27 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, both state and federal governments are struggling to find ways to fund adequate infrastructure investment in today’s economic climate.

MIT researchers find that a key environmental impact is how pavement properties affect the fuel economy of cars and trucks. Roadway roughness and stiffness affect fuel consumption. If the pavement deflects or bends slightly under traffic loads, cars and trucks are running in a slight depression that increases fuel consumption. Stiffer pavements produce less rolling resistance and better fuel economy.

To address infrastructure funding issues, MIT researchers have developed data to help determine the real cost of pavement during its useful life. Life-cycle cost analysis is a tool used to assess the total cost throughout the life of a construction project. It includes both initial construction and the future cost of maintenance and rehabilitation. Hub researchers have demonstrated the importance of accounting for the uncertainty in future material prices in assessing life-cycle costs.

These same issues surface in homes and commercial buildings. A CSHub study on quantifying life-cycle cost, environmental impact, and hazard resistance addresses the need to include the latter point in building design decisions, especially in light of the increase in damage caused by recent natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. CSHub researchers are finding ways to quantify the long-term benefits of resilient and energy-efficient construction.