2015 Washington Auto Show: Will 2040 Bring 'Crippling Congestion' on Roads?

Jan 22, 2015 08:37 AM EST | Jordan Ecarma

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The 2015 Washington Auto Show's chipper theme may be "Made across America," but an analyst tempered the celebration somewhat on Wednesday with a stern warning about the future of American highways.

The year 2040 will bring "near-crippling congestion" on roads, Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, told an audience at a public policy forum Wednesday afternoon.

At a time when lawmakers are debating whether or not to raise the fuel tax, DeGood presented a fairly grim picture of future roads in the United States if driving isn't curbed by a higher levy on gas along with other measures.

"Houston, we have a car problem" was his catchphrase as DeGood explained that while 2.9 trillion miles are driven each year on U.S. roads, just around 10 percent of those are covered by commercial trucks.

The average consumer spends about 38 hours per year sitting in traffic, while wasted time and fuel combined make up a national loss of $121 billion each year.

Most drivers are taking extremely short trips that create needless congestion, with 73 percent of all vehicle trips covering less than 9 miles, DeGood said.

"[Our highways] are filled with cars," he told the audience.

DeGood's "short-term" solution was a 15-cent tax increase per $1 of fuel purchased; for the long-term future, America should invest in public transportation and figure out new ways to get drivers from point A to point B, he said.

Gas may be cheap right now, but America continues to have a dangerous dependence on oil, Kathryn Clay, vice president and director of policy strategy at the American Gas Association, said in her speech at the panel.

"If anything, [low gas prices] give us a chance to re-set our policy and put our eyes on the long game ... we need policies that will help us maintain that momentum," she said.

Proponents of the fuel tax increase point out that the levy has stayed at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. As the auto industry churns out increasingly fuel efficient vehicles, consumers need to purchase less gas, in turn contributing less to the national fund that maintains U.S. roads and highways.

It's vital for everyday consumers to focus on taking public transportation, walking and carpooling to reduce the strain on the U.S. highway infrastructure, DeGood said, noting that major highways such as the I-110 Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles "will never get any bigger."

DeGood cited the high-speed rail network proposed by the Obama administration as a possible alternative to driving.

"It's time we invest in something different," he said.

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