By Eileen Houlihan, senior writer/editor, ARTBA
Congress should legislate an Interstate Highway System renewal and modernization program that focuses on reconstructing the aging and heavily-used infrastructure and pay for it in the near-term by increasing the federal gas tax, a new report to Congress says.
The “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future” report, released Dec. 6 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Transportation Research Board (TRB) and funded through the 2015 FAST Act surface transportation law, also calls for adjusting the federal fuel tax as needed to account for inflation and changes in vehicle fuel economy.
The report did not address a specific amount to raise the federal fuel taxes, but noted the current level of spending on the Interstates at $20 billion to $25 billion annually is “much too low – by at least 50 percent – to proceed with long-deferred rebuilding of the system’s aging and deteriorating pavements and bridges.” The committee said more than $30 billion per year is needed over the next 20 years to just repair and rebuild existing damage, and additional investment of approximately $45 billion to $70 billion per year will be required to expand and manage the system’s capacity to handle future traffic.
It recommends lifting the ban on tolling of existing Interstate highways, a “rightsizing” of the system to address current and emerging demands and to remediate economic, social and environmental disruptions caused to some communities by the system, and address concerns about climate change and accommodate automated vehicles.
“As the nation moves further into the 21st century and as transformations in the vehicle fleet and vulnerabilities due to climate change place new demands on the country’s transportation infrastructure, the prospect of an aging and worn Interstate Highway System that operates unreliably is concerning,” the report noted. The Interstate Highway System is a vital part of the U.S. economy. It is the foundation of the National Highway System (NHS) – which includes ties to ports, airports and other major intermodal transportation facilities. Although the NHS represents just 4 percent of public roads, it carries more than 40 percent of the nation’s highway traffic and 70 percent of the truck freight traffic that moves people and goods across the country.
The report added that when much of the Interstate system was built in the 1960s and 1970s, little was known about the threat of climate change. The report recommends transportation agencies across the country make changes to how they plan, design, construct operate and maintain the system to make it more resilient and less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
In addition, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Dec. 7 op-ed in The Washington Post, said “any infrastructure bill that wants Democratic support in the Senate” will have to include policies and funding that help transition the country to a clean-energy economy and mitigate the risks the U.S. faces from climate change.
TRB’s 14-person committee to research the Interstate report included 2006 ARTBA Chairman Dr. Michael Walton of the University of Texas at Austin.
Walton, who spoke during a webinar at the TRB release of the report, said much of the funding and financing question will vary by state, citing for example, tolling. “What works in one state may not in others,” Walton noted. The original Interstate highway construction program was a collaborative commitment among the states and the federal government. A comparable partnership is needed to ensure resiliency and respond to the changing demands of users, the report said.
ARTBA economic data continues to show that federal funds on average provide more than half of all annual state department of transportation capital outlays for highway and bridge projects.