A divided Congress could lead to better commutes (hopefully)

In the new era of divided government, maybe — just maybe — there’s one clear-cut winner: The regular commuter wishing for an easier trip to work.

In the wake of bruising midterm elections where Democrats regained the House of Representatives and Republicans retained the Senate, infrastructure investment is fast emerging as one area of possible agreement.

That all could give a little pep to straphangers, bus riders and car drivers across the nation, experts told MarketWatch. “There may be some hope for the average commuter,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG’s Transportation Program. “The average commuter for a long time has been hoping for a bipartisan fix.”

Casey Dinges, senior managing director at the American Society of Civil Engineers, agreed. “I’ll say they should feel slightly better and hopeful.”

Americans spend about 41 hours a year stuck in traffic.

Commuters could use some good news. Highway traffic snares and train signal problems aren’t just time lost, they also lead to lost money and stressed, less productive workers.

Americans spend about 41 hours a year stuck in traffic, said David Straus, executive director of the Association for Commuter Transportation, a trade association devoted to improving the efficiency of commutes. The annual cost of congestion in America is $300 billion in lost wages and productivity, Straus said, citing figures from INRIX, a traffic-data analytics company.

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“It is only getting worse,” Straus said. Transportation woes are a challenge to a thriving economy, Straus said. “With more people going to work, we need to figure out new ways of getting them there.”

America’s infrastructure problems have been well-known, and sometimes have fatal consequences. A Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007 killed 13 people. Meanwhile, the American Society of Civilian Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a depressing “D+” in a 2017 report card. The score card covered everything from airports to wastewater management to transit and roads.

There are $500 billion in road and bridge repairs that are either awaiting funding or have no funding at all, Casale said. Transit repairs will cost another $90 billion, he said.

Dinges estimated it will take $200 billion in spending every year for 10 years, from any combination of public and private sources, to get America’s infrastructure grade to a B.

Shares of engineering and manufacturing companies equipped to help with massive public projects, like Caterpillar

CAT, +4.46%

Aecom

ACM, +2.72%

  and Skanska

SKSBF, +0.40%

were all up during Wednesday’s trading day.

Weary commuters have heard the talk before

It’s not like Republicans and President Donald Trump haven’t talked about infrastructure before.

Trump bemoaned the state of American infrastructure on the 2016 campaign trail. In February, he proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure improvement fund where government would kick in $200 billion and the private sector would pay for the rest. But Democrats balked at an arrangement that would let the private sector basically own the bridges and roads.

Looking ahead, Dinges said, “The devil will be in the details” on matters like funding. Still, he added, “It’s hard to recall a better set-up to try to deal with this nationally than we have now.”

Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a pro-business nonprofit organization consisting of CEOs, said she was optimistic. There was “a clear public understanding that America’s continued economic growth, which has been a top priority for Republicans, depends on getting our infrastructure into shape.” Any infrastructure spending boost would also mean valuable construction jobs, Wylde noted.

Wylde explained that, typically, the federal government kicks in around 40% to 50% for an infrastructure project. The remainder is covered by state and local municipalities, as well as user fees and tolls, she said.

America’s infrastructure was basically built in the past 100 years, along with projects following World War II, Wylde said. From Manhattan’s subway, now in “deep distress,” to water systems in the American west, the strains have been showing especially as more people flocked to cities, she noted.

Likewise, Casale said Americans were living with 20th Century infrastructure and public officials “haven’t done a good job modernizing it.”

Large scale public works projects also had implications for climate change and public health, Casale said. He wasn’t a fan of more roads for more cars.

“We need to start thinking we’re moving people, not cars,” he said.

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Andrew Keshner is a personal finance reporter based in New York.

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