Road Warriors: Mayors Bringing Back Our Roads

One third of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

ByABC News
January 18, 2012, 9:44 AM

Jan. 20, 2012 -- "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" the iconic 1956 musical sales pitch went, beckoning us to the great American road and heralding in a new chapter in the 20th century.

Those words, that call, were built on the Eisenhower expansion program, which created the best and biggest highways and roads in the world, and came to symbolize America's postwar vitality and promise -- 4 million miles of freedom bringing Americans from front porches to drive-ins to national parks.

But in the decades since the highway-building heyday, America's once celebrated roads are now ranked 20th -- behind Cyprus' and Malaysia's.

Today, one-third of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, according to Building America's Future Educational Fund, a bipartisan organization of politicians dedicated to investing in infrastructure. The rundown roads contribute to half of all auto accidents because of things like narrow shoulders and frayed asphalt.

But enter a group of road warriors, the nation's mayors, shaking up Congress, saying, let's fix those potholes and clogged highways.

ABC News spoke with Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz., about the steps they're taking to bring America back.

"If they pass the surface transportation bill and America Fast Forward, it will allow us to accelerate the building of that 30-year project in a 10-year period of time, creating 166,000 jobs," Villaraigosa said. "These are the kinds of innovative things that the Congress has an opportunity to do that they haven't done up to now. ... Their failure to address the No. 1 issue in America, the jobs issue, is akin to the captain of the Concordia jumping off the ship before the passengers had been rescued. This Congress needs to get back on that ship and do their job."

While the mayors would like the support of Capitol Hill, they aren't waiting to take action. Even in an economic downturn these mayors have managed to convince their constituents to raise revenue to build better roads and create jobs.

Smith passed a quarter of a penny sales tax in Mesa.

"That went into building roads, but we did other things," he told ABC News. "We didn't wait for that sales tax to come in. We were able to open up a regional reliever airport that created thousands of jobs and has resulted in literally hundreds of millions of dollars of increased economic activity."

Villaraigosa passed a similar tax in Los Angeles.

"We passed a half penny sales tax to generate about $40 billion to invest in building our infrastructure," he said.

The mayors are also using public-private partnerships to get results and control costs. In Philadelphia, more children are able to ice skate because of a partnership between the city and Flyers owner Ed Snider.

"We have five ice rinks in the city that we operate. Unfortunately, I had to announce that in the next budget year, we would only be able to operate two of those five," Nutter told ABC News. "Ed Snider partnered with the city of Philadelphia, agreed to operate the other three that we were not going to be able to open. And ultimately, signed a lease with us to now operate all five."

These mayors say investing in the infrastructure of cities is the secret to jump-starting the economy.

"Ninety percent of the country's GDP happens in cities and metro areas," Nutter said. "If you have a company where 90 percent of your output was coming from one place, you wouldn't cut that area, you'd invest. You'd invest in research and innovation. You'd put more resources in that particular area."

It's a secret Villaraigosa said the rest of the world is acting on, and he argues it's about time America did too.

"If you go to China, Japan and Korea ... you don't have to tell any of those countries that modernizing their airports, building their ports and their roads are what you have to do if you want to compete around the world."