It’s time to get serious about fixing our nation’s highways, according to a Transportation Research Board committee report. Worsening congestion endangers safety and economic growth, they warn.
The TRB panel says, “Unless a commitment is made to remedy the system’s deficiencies and prepare for these oncoming challenges, there is a real risk that the nation’s interstates will become increasingly unreliable and congested, far more costly to maintain, less safe, incompatible with evolving technology, and vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.”
TRB is a division of the National Academies of Sciences, which co-sponsored the report along with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“The Interstates have long been the backbone of our country’s transportation system, but most of them have exceeded their design lives and in many places are worn and overused,” said Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. and chair of the committee that wrote the congressionally-mandated report. “These aging interstates are highly congested oftentimes and in need of reconstruction.”
Infrastructure funding enjoys widespread bipartisan support even in this age of political polarization. The only real roadblock to a new program is the lack of any kind of agreement among policymakers on how to fund such a nationwide program.
The TRB panel notes that more than one-third of Interstate bridges have been in service for more than 50 years. They require repair investments that will add significantly to the major outlays required to rebuild the system’s original pavement foundation.
The report calls for a 20-year plan it names the Interstate Highway System Renewal and Modernization Program, or
RAMP, which includes fuel tax increases, and would allow tolls and per-mile-charges on more interstate routes to pay for it.
TRB says the federal government would provide leadership, vision and the bulk of the funding, and the states would prioritize and execute projects in their traditional role as the system’s owners, builders and maintainers.
The report also promotes the idea that advances in technology – ranging from more efficient and faster construction methods and more durable materials to electronic tolling and increasingly connected and automated vehicles – could make the rebuilding and allocation of its capacity more manageable, while increasing the system’s capacity and level of safety.
Augustine points out that technological advances are offering new opportunities, but may also undermine a principal source of income for the Interstates, namely the tax on fuel, which hasn’t been increased since 1993.
“We recommend a course of action that is aggressive and ambitious, but by no means novel. Essentially, we need a reinvigoration of the federal and state partnership that produced the Interstate Highway System in the first place,” he says.
TRB argues that lifting the ban on tolling on most general purpose Interstate lanes would provide states with more options for raising revenue for their share of RAMP investments and for managing the traffic demand. Between 1980 and 2015, vehicle miles traveled on Interstates grew by more than 160%, compared with a 90% increase on all other public roads.
Interstate highways currently are only about 1% of the total public roadway mileage in use, but they represent 25% of all vehicle miles traveled. That includes about half the miles traveled by commercial trucks.
The report also identified both long-standing and emerging challenges. These include rebuilding the system’s pavements, bridges and other aging assets before they become unserviceable and less safe.
Another is the need to add more traffic capacity and demand management capabilities, especially on congested urban segments, to keep pace with changes in where people are located and future economic growth. Other needs include improving safety as traffic volumes increase and adapting to changing vehicle technologies.
“Large metropolitan areas are expected to continue to account for most of the country’s population growth, yet their Interstates have little room to expand locally and are likely to require innovative solutions to accommodate growing travel demand, the report predicts.
Another issue is the fact while thousands of miles of high-quality highways other than Interstates connect the country’s population centers, lack of access to Interstates is seen by some smaller communities and emerging cities as detrimental to their growth. This is particularly the case because the Interstates are the country’s main trucking corridors.
Recent combined state and federal capital spending on the Interstates has been approximately $25 billion annually. The committee says that to renew and modernize these highways over the next 20 years, $45 billion to $70 billion will be required each year, depending on uncertainties, such as the rate of growth of vehicle miles traveled.