Railroads Can Ease the Burden of Our Infrastructure Woes

With America's highways and bridges facing a backlog of $740 billion in repairs, transportation experts agree that the United States -- even with progress made through passage of Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST) in 2015 -- still has a long way to go. But there is a way we can supplement the $305 billion allocated for transportation infrastructure through 2020 and more immediately ease the wear and tear on our strained roads: ship more goods by freight rail.

Railroads already play a central role in a shipping ecosystem that moves more than 17 billion tons of freight per year -- or 54 tons of freight for every American. A modern rail infrastructure is the linchpin to the industry's success in keeping costs of goods low for all consumers, reducing congestion on roadways and saving taxpayers money. As major metropolises like Washington D.C. struggle with subway systems, freight railroads already help move people too, providing the track for most commuter lines to move the majority of the 1.7 million passenger trips every day.

As an industry that invests heavily in its own infrastructure, railroads understand the importance of a modern and efficient transportation network, and the celebration of Infrastructure Week (May 16-23) offers an opportunity to highlight the effects of infrastructure on all Americans -- from roads to rail to water and our energy grid.

Unlike most other infrastructure, primarily funded through taxpayer dollars, railroads are privately investing at record levels to upgrade tracks, trains and equipment across the country's 140,000-mile rail network. "Freight rail's renaissance is powering the U.S. economy even without Uncle Sam's help," wrote columnist Michael Grunwald, then at TIME, in 2012.

Private investments total more than $600 billion since 1980 and an estimated $26 billion this year to maintain and operate the coast-to-coast rail system.

These investments are paying off for all Americans as railroads, supported by smart public policy that allows companies to earn the revenue to facilitate these sizeable investments, continue to improve efficiency and safety.

With a single freight train taking several hundred trucks off the road, this limits the wear and tear on our already-strained highways and reduces the pressure to build costly new highways. This also saves time for motorists stuck on congested roads, which costs Americans $160 billion every year in wasted time and fuel, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard.

Rebuilding our infrastructure is a critical safety issue for all Americans. Experts have found more than 60,000 highway bridges across the country are "structurally deficient," and with hazardous materials such as petroleum and chemicals being moved across our highways every day, we cannot afford to risk further decay of our bridges and roads.

Fortunately, private investments are ensuring railroads can meet the test of safely shipping these types of hazardous materials. In fact, rail moves 2.5 million carloads of plastics, fertilizers and other chemicals from coast to coast every year, and 99.99 percent of those shipments reach their destinations without incident.

On a daily basis, Americans experience the stark contrast in publicly funded highways versus privately owned railways. One is falling further behind while the other embodies efficiency and self-sufficiency. As we mark Infrastructure Week and coalesce to help advance solutions, we should be studying the success of the freight rail system to help reimagine what is possible.