The Lack of Infrastructure Funding for Highway Maintenance and Enhancement

Art Hirsch - Monday, February 06, 2012

Why is it that the general public who use the federal and state highway transportation system are unwilling to invest in maintaining their current infrastructure system? Why is there so little political leadership to address this critical issue?

Many states are trying to encourage and entice businesses to stay in or relocate to their states; however, tax breaks alone are not enough or the best way. A well designed and maintained transportation system and a strong educational system are strong selling points. These elements are also critical expectations of the states’ population. Having a great transportation system and educational system in the first place is what made the US the most competitive and productive nation on the planet. Are we going to continue to do nothing about our infrastructure while other countries pass us by economically?

It appears that the days of a free federal paid lunch to fund large highway systems in order to add additional highway capacity are gone. In the past, state DOTs have spent a great deal of energy on acquiring federal dollars to expand their transportation capacity without doing a real life cycle cost analysis. This has resulted in the lack of highway maintenance that has led to the deterioration of many of our nation’s bridges and road surfaces. To underscore this point, the American Society of Civil Engineers has rated our nation highway infrastructure a score of D minus (1).

I recently attended a local highway corridor meeting (US 36 Commuting Solutions in Broomfield, Colorado). The meeting hosted numerous politicians from the US House of Representatives, State House and Senate Representatives and local municipality mayors and transportation representatives. Most of these political representatives talked about their support of transportation systems and the new design build project on US 36 but do or say nothing toward improving the department of transportation’s budget. They seem content focusing on small issues and not developing and pushing through funding bills, fees or referendums to solve road deterioration problems. Support is one thing; action and leadership is quite different and needed.

Only one state politician (State Senator Rollie Heath) voiced concern about transportation funding and understands the long term economic impacts to the State of Colorado. He mentioned in his speech that there has been no new or increased funding sources for highways over the past 10-15 years; although the population and vehicle miles traveled has dramatically increased over the same time. The state is unwilling to face the infrastructure problems and seems to be afraid of increasing taxes to those who use the transportation system.

It seems like the public and the politicians are expecting this problem to fix itself.

There seems to be only two options; increase taxes and/or fees onto the public to pay for the use, maintenance and enhancement of the infrastructure or privatize the systems to investors who are within and outside of the United States.  

There needs to be an increase in the Colorado State Gas Tax since it has not been raised in over 15 years. As cars become more fuel efficient, there is less revenue generated by this archaic funding mechanism. Fees for driver licenses and plates should be increased to cover the short fall in maintenance budgets. Innovative approaches to tax the public based upon their miles traveled on state roads is something to consider. If you use the system you should pay for the service; similar to an electrical utility.  To aid in this approach, DOTs like the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) can do a better job in educating the public on the deteriorating conditions of the highway infrastructure (that is actually paid for and owned by the people) and market the public to support fee or tax increase referendums. These conditions are not unique to Colorado and are common nationwide.

The other option is to privatize highway operations and maintenance via the payment of tolls.  Some states have “given away” portions of their road systems to private investors to reduce their state operating budgets (like the Indiana Tollway). These investors have long term agreements with DOTs and have the ability to set and raise tolls over time to achieve a desired profit margin. These investors will at least maintain the road systems but at a profit based cost to those who use the road system. CDOT is well on their way of using this mechanism; as mentioned by the CDOT Executive Director that all new road capacity will be funded by public-private partnerships (meaning tolls).  

So what is the answer?

DOTs need to better educate and inform the public on current and future highway issues using main stream multi-media. Most DOT outreach seems to focus on forecasted or current storm conditions, construction projects, hazardous spills, etc. via 2 minute sound bites on the local news. DOTs need to inform the public on the current and future conditions of transportation systems and the implication of not having enough maintenance and enhancement funding. It is interesting that utility companies for a profit (even though they are regulated differently) get rate increases more frequently and easier than DOTs get funding increases to maintain their systems. DOTs need to market the public for additional funding to effectively manage road systems. The push for better infrastructure must now come from an educated traveling public, since politicians do not have the political will to ask for unpopular increased taxes and/or fees. The educated public needs to provide input to DOTs management and politicians about their desire for better transportation systems to improve and maintain their quality of life and the future competitiveness of the states.

Bottom line- Using our federal and state transportation systems can no longer be considered free by the traveling public. According to ASCE the challenges imposed by our highway infrastructure require a large increase in capital investment on the part of all levels of government and other sources as well. The failure to adequately invest in the nation’s highways and roads will lead to increased congestion and delays for motorists and the further deterioration of pavement conditions and will pose increased safety concerns. An overstressed infrastructure will also slow freight delivery, create unpredictability in supply chains, diminish the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, and increase the cost of consumer goods. There must also be a significant change in the way we manage the system, which should include the use of emerging technologies and innovative operational strategies (1).

(1) ASCE Report Card For America’s Infrastructure –Transportation/Roads (2009) (http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/fact-sheet/roads)

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