Congress really has its hands full these days, with urgent priorities summoning attention from all directions. Pandemic relief. The census on a tighter schedule. Widespread social unrest. Election season.
As if that wasn’t enough, with seemingly no room left on their full plate, national leaders were coming up on a dead end for federal road funding at the close of last month. Signed into law about five years ago, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was set to expire on September 30. In an 11th-hour rescue, budget writers included a one-year extension of the FAST Act in the recent continuing resolution that funds the federal government through December 11.
The near-death of the FAST Act didn’t mean that highways and bridges everywhere would suddenly collapse, nor did it mean that bus and rail transit systems would instantly cease operations. What it did mean is that federal transportation funding was set to suddenly stop flowing to the states.
States rely heavily upon that cash to meet all sorts of needs, including routine maintenance for a system we depend upon heavily to support our economy and give us access to vital goods and services like health care.
So very much has changed since the FAST Act became law in 2015. One thing that hasn’t changed at all is that we can sum up our transportation dilemma in three simple issues.
We still prefer a solo commute: Traffic congestion prior to COVID-19 was following a predictable and consistent pattern, getting worse every year and generally tracking the nation’s steady job growth. Then the pandemic pulled the plug on millions of jobs, and forced many more into a work-from-home status that remains in place today for many. The number of work-from-home days, in fact, has doubled during the pandemic. With fewer cars competing for space, there’s noticeably more elbow room on our freeways. But that’s unlikely to last very long beyond our public health crisis recovery. Prior to the springtime lockdowns, about three-fourths of American commuters were driving alone in their cars to work. Once we emerge from this national emergency, we can expect our streets and highways to look pretty much the same as they looked a year ago, when roadway gridlock cost the average commuter more than $1,000 and 54 hours a year in delay.
We still pay for infrastructure the same way we did in 1932: That’s the year that Congress set the first gasoline tax at a penny per gallon to help fund the nation’s road and bridge needs. Lawmakers last raised the tax in 1993, setting it at 18.4 cents a gallon (no matter the cost of the gallon), where it’s been ever since. But with inflation, that tax pays for barely half of what it did when President Bill Clinton was starting his first term in the White House. And with many Americans out of work or working from home, they were buying less gas, pushing tax revenues still lower. Between inflation and the pandemic, that’s a serious one-two punch to the nation’s Highway Trust Fund. Post-pandemic, we’ll have a lot of catching up to do with road funding.
We still accept roadway deaths as a price we pay for mobility: More than 100 people die every day while traveling on our nation’s roadways. And although health crisis quarantines have made roads notably less congested, those streets and highways have been no less risky. While national data from January to June showed a notable drop in the number of highway miles driven compared to the same time last year, the fatality rate – the number of deaths per miles driven – jumped by about 20 percent compared to the same period the year before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that average vehicle speeds increased during that period, and instances of excessive speed were more common, which could account for the spike. And driver inattention is a persistent contributor to fatal crashes. Decades of advancements in vehicle design and roadway engineering can’t dissuade drivers who choose to be reckless. When we’re through dealing with our worst public health crisis in a century, we’ll still be left trying to solve another one that’s been around for almost as long — one that seems to tolerate the growing number of annual highway deaths that remains so unacceptably high.
There’s no disputing the reality that America’s infrastructure network is central to our social and economic well-being. The only real debate to be had is over how best to fund, operate and maintain it. Add that to our list of urgent national concerns, because even with a one-year funding extension, we don’t have the luxury of abundant time in which to act.
Gregory Winfree is the agency director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of transportation.
This article was originally published in The Hill, October 7, 2020.