Statement by Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG Senior Analyst, explaining how reactions to today’s American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report card for America’s infrastructure should be interpreted in light of two trends: (1) the short-term federal assistance from stimulus funds that have since expired; and (2) a persistent trend by Americans toward driving less. The ASCE report card is released every four years and is seen as a major indicator of the state of the nation’s infrastructure. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“The Stimulus”) injected one-time funds totaling $68 billion for infrastructure that were almost entirely spent during the years covered by the latest study. Of that total, $48 billion went to transportation, with most devoted to highways.
“Whatever the ASCE looks for in grading America’s infrastructure, our standing must be interpreted in light of changed driving trends and the federal stimulus funds that were markedly focused on repair, but have since expired.
“If grades for infrastructure show some improvement, credit must first be given to the stimulus. The time period between the last Civil Engineers report in 2009 and the present one brackets the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act (ARRA), which injected tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure. Without those funds, the condition of America’s infrastructure would undeniably be worse off.
“In addition to its one-time use-it-or-lose-it funds, the stimulus was exceptionally targeted toward repairing existing infrastructure. In keeping with the goal of stimulating rapid job creation, states focused their flexible transportation funds on labor-intensive projects that could be initiated quickly. Highway spending was particularly focused on repair and maintenance. Analysis in 2011, showed that almost 60 percent (58.9%) of flexible transportation funds were spent on road repair, compared to only a third (33.5%) spent on building new and wider highways. Eight states — Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia — focused every dollar of their flexible road funds on maintaining existing capacity. These flexible (STP) funds were the largest source of transportation funding in the stimulus act.
“The stimulus’ focus on repair and maintenance didn’t win political points at the time. The benefits of preventing infrastructure from crumbling are largely invisible and rarely commemorated by political ribbon cutting events. A 2010 report by U.S. PIRG titled “Road Work Ahead,” described the economic benefits of focusing highway funding on repair, as well as the political obstacles that traditionally steer funding instead toward shiny new highway projects.
“Since the stimulus funds have expired, states are struggling to keep up with infrastructure repair. In some states, such as Wisconsin, governors are even opting to steer money away from repair and public transit, and toward building new and wider roads. Unless the funding situation improves or policies further encourage repair, we can expect that the next infrastructure report card in 2017 will show lower grades.
“Whether or not the condition of transportation infrastructure can improve in coming years will depend on whether policy makers can give up the habit of prioritizing construction of new highways and focus more funding on repair and maintenance, as the stimulus did.
Not everyone is focused to new roads; in fact, recent consumer driving trends point us in the other direction. On a per-capita-basis Americans have been driving less each year, for eight years running. Since 2005, there has been a major reduction in the growth of American driving. In fact, Americans drive seven percent fewer total miles than they did eight years ago, and the trend is led by younger Americans who will set the habits for the coming generation.
“The ongoing reduction in the volume of driving suggests one reason why roads could be in better condition than we might expect. More significantly, it reminds us that in the face of difficult budget decisions ahead, we should not be blinded by the traditional political appeal of highway expansion at a time when consumers are not even calling for it. We can improve future road conditions by deprioritizing construction of new and wider highways and focusing on fixing our current infrastructure first.”
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For more information on the Transportation Solutions campaign, click here. To read U.S. PIRG’s report on the need for greater highway spending priority on road repair, click here. To read U.S. PIRG’s report on the trend toward reduced driving, click here. To read U.S. PIRG’s earlier joint report on characteristics of federal transportation stimulus spending, click here.