Why Our Highways Need Repair

By Galm, Chris | Consumers' Research Magazine, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Our Highways Need Repair


Galm, Chris, Consumers' Research Magazine


In just 40 years, our highway system has changed the way we live and work. It has become an important fixture in our lives, a catalyst for expansion of the suburbs and transformation of the nation's retail economy. The goods we purchase are more plentiful and less expensive because of it. Our trips are more efficient, faster, safer.

A big part of this improvement is the huge network of federally-funded highways launched in 1956. While roads by and large remain a state and local responsibility, the federal portion of the grid - anchored by 45,000 miles of Interstate and some 160,000 miles of additional primary highways - can be credited with assuring the establishment of the extensive system we enjoy and depend on.

Despite these accomplishments, however, there are serious problems with the system. The most visible concern is the quality of the highways, which by all accounts are in need of serious and expensive repair. Official assessments of the nation's primary highways - those eligible for federal aid, representing about a quarter of all roads and 85% of travel - reveal the need for extensive, and costly, fix-up. Consider:

* A 1995 Department of Transportation (DOT) survey reports that fully 26% of the 922,000 miles of these highways have "poor" or "mediocre" pavement condition, meaning the roads need improvement in the immediate or near future to preserve "usability." Another 34% of highways' pavement is rated as "fair," or "likely" needing improvement, depending on traffic use.

* The survey's assessment of bridges reveals additional deterioration. Of the 54,000 bridges in the Interstate system alone, roughly 10,000 are defined as "functionally deficient," meaning they lack proper lane width, shoulder width, or vertical clearance adequate for traffic demand, or the bridge's so-called waterway may be inadequate, thus "allowing occasional flooding of the roadway." Another 3,000 are rated as "structurally deficient," meaning the bridges need "significant maintenance attention, rehabilitation, or sometimes replacement," according to the DOT. Of some 270,000 bridges in the greater national highway system, 80,000 need repair.

To put the problem in financial terms: current spending on highways falls short even of maintaining the current unsatisfactory conditions. According to DOT estimates, just to prevent roads and bridges from getting any worse than 1993 levels would require roughly $6.5 billion more each year in federal highway spending. To bring the highways up to par to meet increasing travel needs would require the Feds alone to pitch in another $15 billion each year over what they presently Spend.

Motorists paying hefty gas and other taxes for highway upkeep may well wonder how all this can be. There is, after all, a Federal Highway Trust Fund, into which a tremendous amount of money pours each year, and which is supposed to be the financial mainstay of the system. The idea of the Fund, set up as part of the Interstate legislation of '56, was to have a "dedicated" pot of money to meet the federal expenses, paid in by the people who actually used the highways. This "user fee" approach was one of the key selling points for taking on so immense a project.

As a revenue device, federal gas taxes (and some associated levies) have certainly been successful. The main source of federal funding is a tax of 18.3[cents] per gallon, supplemented by other highway-related fees and taxes, primarily on trucking. Among them, these brought in a whopping $29.4 billion in 1994-the most recent year for which figures are available - far more than needed to meet the federal share of the highway system's financial needs.

The Diversion of Funds. The catch is, however, that a big chunk of the money being generated by these taxes is diverted from the highways. In 1994, only $14.5 billion of the money Uncle Sam obtained from highway-connected sources actually made it into the "highway account" of the Trust Fund to begin with - not quite half the sum that was collected. …

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