There are no shortages of government and think tank studies highlighting how horrible the conditions of U.S. roads and highways are. So, it should be of no surprise that a recent study completed by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine reported that interstate highways are in grave danger thanks to structural and operational deficiencies that have yet to be addressed, whether at the state or federal level.
Even more, with the coming evolution to autonomous and electric vehicles, rapid change and upgrades are needed. In fact, it will take years to address the issue, with many suspecting that a hike in fuel taxes and tolling or per-mile charges might be the only way to properly address the problem.
Entitled “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future,” the report specifically calls for a 20-year plan with a funding requirement in the billions of dollars. The methodology the report points to is called the “Interstate Highway System Renewal and Modernization Program. A mixture of the aforementioned fuel tax hikes and tolls and per-mile charges on interstate roads would fund the program.
The authors point out that there must be a stern commitment to the plan, otherwise the risk of overly congested and unreliable roadways will only become more acute. Even more, the cost for bringing those roadways into workable conditions increases as conditions on interstate thoroughfares becomes worse.
While the nation’s roads and highways were built with longevity in mind, most of them have exceeded their design lives and in many places have become completely worn out, overused, or unreliable. Reconstruction is critical in the majority of states. Yet, backlogs, red tape, and in many cases political gamesmanship prevents necessary projects from moving forward.
For those who point to fuel tax increases as a potential solution, it is important to note that technological advances in automobile manufacturing may undermine that source of income. If people are using less fuel, they are paying less fuel tax, which serves as the primary funding mechanism for the interstate highway system.
The report authors state that there must be an aggressive and ambitious course of action from lawmakers and interested parties when it comes to addressing the infrastructure problem. As federal and state partnerships have frayed in recent years, industry advocates are encouraging lawmakers to forget the past and forge new relationships for the sake of our country’s transportation network.
While the interstates carry a mere 1% of public road usage, they carry a full one-third of all the miles traveled by heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles. When it comes to per-mile usage, interstates are the safest corridors in the nation, but because they are used so heavily, they account for more than 5,000 traffic deaths per year. Even worse, in urban areas they suffer from disrepair and congestion.
Assessing the Challenges
More than one-third of interstate bridges have been in service for more than half-a-century. Due to their age, they will require a major overhaul and high level of investment. The major outlays required for rebuilding the entirety of the system’s original pavement foundation will be very high. But with large urban areas accounting for the vast majority of the country’s population growth, solutions to improving rural stretches of highway will require grand thinking.
The NAS report singled several challenges on the horizon, some of which have been a problem for a long time and others which are novel. The simple, straightforward necessities include rebuilding the interstate system’s pavements and bridges. Next, adding more traffic capacity and implementing many more demand management capabilities will be critical. This is especially important in congested, urban areas.
More long-term challenges include ensuring the system can keep pace with the changes in a country’s population and how economic growth impacts coverage. As traffic volumes continue to rise, ensuring safety will be critical. Finally, evolving vehicle technologies will require innovative thinking. Smart roads and connected highways will usher in a new level of complexity at just the wrong time. With all efforts on simply rebuilding the interstate system, how will the burdens of technological change impact current efforts?
In the end, user-based funding mechanisms may be needed to generate reinvestment revenue. The money will need to come from somewhere, even if the stakeholders most likely impacted by any revenue-generating measures give pause. Advances in faster and more efficient construction methods and more durable materials will lay the foundation for better reconstruction. Making reconstruction more manageable and increasing the capacity and safety levels of the interstate highway system is possible in the current climate. It simply takes a little grit and plenty of investment.
Where’s the Money?
There is one inconvertible fact about what is required. There will need to be an effort similar to what happened in the 1950s when the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was first put into effect. During this time, there was a coordinated focus between the federal government and states to motivate the development of change.
Thus, the NAS report recommends that Congress legislate their program, which comes ready to go with the clever acronym of RAMP. The federal government would have to provide the leadership, vision, and most of the funding, while the states would decide which projects get the most attention and how the funding is disbursed. The states would also govern how the system is maintained within their jurisdiction.
So, what do the numbers show right now? When federal and state funding is combined, recent interstate spending has been around $25 billion on an annualized basis. The report’s authors contend that to meet the modernization requirements the highways need, funding will need to jump from $25 billion to $70 billion. Of course, there are factors that could influence this number, such as extreme weather, the rate of population growth, usage, and vehicle miles traveled.
It could even be that the number quoted is still too low, as it does not adequately take into account the funding that will be required to reconfigure and reconstruct the 15,000 interchanges dotting the system. With states talking about fuel taxes, tolls, and use fees, it appears that a concerted effort could be on the way.
The NAS report’s authors point specifically to this in stating that if the ban on tolling for general purposes is lifted, interstate lanes would create new sources of revenue for cash-starved states in dire need of quick roadway repairs. Repairs will not be the only priority item on the plate, however. ‘Rightsizing’ the interstate system will also require a lot of foresight.
Specifically, the NAS study calls for Congress to provide instruction to the DOT to establish a criterion by which the interstate system’s length and scope of coverage and remediate disruption. They recommend that the criterion in question be developed in consultation with states, local governments, municipalities, and vested interests that rely on the health of the interstate highway system.
Another consideration lies in the harm and inconvenience placed on communities where interstate segments divide or isolate neighborhoods. As regions around the country have grown at an exponential rate, urban planning has not always taken a front seat. This has resulted in a transportation network that sometimes shortchanges smaller communities abutting large urban centers.
Final Recommendations in Congress’ Hands
According to the report, Congress should also work with DOT, the FHWA, industry, and independent technical experts to plan for a system that includes considerations for connected vehicles. It recommends the effort should include the necessary research, updates, and technical planning necessary to ensure the Interstate Highway System meets the demands of the future.
A basic intelligent transportation instrumentation system must be adopted and be consistent on a system-wide basis. Everything from pavement markings to interchange design strategy and reconstruction prioritization must drive the projects. The question now is whether there will be enough political capital and legislative will to get the job done.
Although usage charges and tolls sound like reasonable ways to supplement a dwindling gas tax, there are vested interests that don’t like the way individual states are implementing their toll structures. For this reason, many trucking advocates have come out in support of an overall federal solution to funding the nation’s roadway improvement requirements.
Still, there remains much daylight between individual stakeholders and advocates on an overall solution. While varying state legislatures offer up their own solutions, the Trump administration pushes theirs. With a new Congress being sworn in this January, many wonder if there will be enough political will to create some momentum on the side of greater funding through taxes, tolls, and fees. It appears that, for now, only time will tell.