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How COVID-19 Hurts the Highway Trust Fund and Safety of America’s Roads and Bridges

The U.S. road and bridge infrastructure is a highly interconnected system that supports vast commerce, commuters, travelers, and even our national security due to the criticality of movement for emergency calls, disaster response, and even war mobilization.[i] However, our road and bridge infrastructure was in a dire need for capital improvements, repair, and maintenance well before the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, this pandemic has caused road and bridge infrastructure usage to plummet due to social distancing guidance, stay-at-home orders, teleworking implementation, restricted travel, event and venues closures, unemployment increases, and leisure travel postponements. With respect to the state of this infrastructure, an argument could be made that less vehicular traffic could allow for further deferments or delays in infrastructure improvements, repairs, and maintenance. Another argument is that less vehicular traffic to contend with and the loss avoidance of revenue from congested commerce and commuters makes now the time for capital improvements, maintenance, and repairs. But it is much more complex than picking one side of an argument or a blend of both.

An often-overlooked issue is that less vehicular traffic means less gasoline and diesel fuel consumption and thus less excise tax collected for the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF is used to sustain highways, bridges, tunnels, and public roadways, and the HTF provides loans and grants to states for such projects. Although other taxes, such as the sale of trucks, trailers, and their tires, support the HTF, most of the revenue comes from an excise tax per gallon of gasoline (18.3 cents) and diesel (24.3 cents) fuel. However, that excise tax has not been increased since 1993 under the President Clinton administration. Furthermore, the HTF tax was not indexed to inflation, which has thus reduced the purchasing power of the tax revenue to the point that the HTF is unable alone to meet today’s sustainment needs. As a result, the HTF requires additional funding from the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund to remain solvent. Unfortunately, the reduction of road and bridge infrastructure usage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is further going to challenge the HTF now and into the future. Compounding the problem of reduced HTF revenue since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., the road and bridge infrastructure was already in a very poor state of deterioration, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Road and Bridge Infrastructures Grades

Every four years, the ASCE gathers its committee of 28 subject matter experts to assign letter grades to America’s infrastructure in the form of a broad report card. The infrastructure grading assigned ranges from grade of “A” to an “F”: “A” is exceptional and future ready, “B” is good and adequate for the present, “C” is mediocre and requires attention, “D” is poor and at risk, and “F” is failing or critical, and thus unfit for its intended purpose. Grades are determined by analyzing key criteria that includes capacity, condition, funding, future need, innovation, operation and maintenance, public safety, and resilience. [ii] In the ASCE’s most recent infrastructure analysis report from 2017, the U.S. received a slightly above mediocre grade for bridges and a poor grade for roads.[iii] Even when considering possible bias by ASCE, which is composed of engineers and companies who directly benefit from bridge and road improvements, the U.S. clearly has an infrastructure crisis.

ASCE’s 2017 report assigned a “C+” grade to bridges.[iv] This grade was based on the approximate 231,000 bridges across the U.S. that need structural repair, rehabilitation, or replacement.[v] It is believed that an estimated 47,000 bridges in the U.S. are structurally deficient bridges and in need of repair[vi] and the average age is nearing 70 years.[vii] To put these numbers into perspective, “if placed end-to-end, the length of bridges in need of repair would stretch over 6,300 miles – long enough to make a round trip across the country from New York City to Los Angeles and back again to Chicago.” Furthermore, according to a report done by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, even the most prominent bridges in the U.S. are deficient and include “New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883; Memorial Bridge connecting Washington, D.C. to Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River; the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, which spans California’s San Francisco Bay; and Florida’s Pensacola Bay Bridge, better known as the Three-Mile Bridge.”[viii] As bridges become deteriorated they often have vehicle weight restricts placed on them to add a greater degree of structural safety buffer, which causes heavier vehicles costly detours. Since bridges are natural choke points for roads and interstate highways, one can surmise that the “C+” grade is concerning, but yet it is not as bad as the road letter grade discussed next.

The ASCE’s 2017 report assigned a “D” grade for roads due to one out of every five miles of roadway across the U.S. needing repair.[ix] With almost 4.2 million miles of road in the U.S., that equates to 840,000 miles of road that need immediate attention.[x] Deferred maintenance based on financial and appropriation constraints has caused a large backlog of repair and replacement, which in turn increases the eventual cost by approximately fourfold versus if the work had been done sooner. Furthermore, deferment and delays to maintenance and repairs results in second- and third-order effects that are harder to quantify, such as lost productivity and revenue due to increases in congestion, significant detours, and often damaged vehicles.

A Growing Problem

Most notable is the road backlog of growing requirements[xi] where, unfortunately, more money is spent on capital expansion projects instead of much-needed road maintenance and repairs.[xii] This results in superficial “facelift” of road maintenance and repairs that does not resolve the root cause of the failing roads. Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit, stated in an interview that transportation agency workers are telling him that “sub-grades known as the surfaces underneath the roads are actually deteriorating faster than they can get to them.”[xiii] It is this patchwork repair approach to these failing sub-grades, which is driven in part by the public’s demands for pavement smoothness, that is driving a mindset not conducive to long-term solutions.[xiv]

The U.S. Department of Transportation in 2017 estimated there is a “backlog of $836 billion worth of investments needed just to improve our highways, Interstate system, and bridges across the U.S.” with almost $550 billion needed just for repairs.[xv] As stated before, it is important to reiterate that the federal gas tax has not increased since 1993 and that due to inflation, the 18.3 cents tax per gallon of gasoline is now only worth 10 to 11 cents in 2020 money, and as a result, many states have imposed their own fuel taxes to make up the difference. The fact that the HTF excise tax has not seen an increase since 1993 is driven by politics, as many politicians do not want their name tied to such a tax increase as it would literately touch every one of their constituents. Despite that, several attempts have been made and have failed within Congress over the years.

Much has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported in May 2020 that it estimated “state transportation revenues will be decreased by at least 30 percent – approximately $50 billion – over the next 18 months due to the reduced level of vehicle travel as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”[xvi] This means that even less funding will be available for the much-needed maintenance and repairs for roads and bridges. This $50 billion shortfall is resulting in states deferring and delaying maintenance and repair work[xvii] often to out-years, which just equates to higher future expenditures. Clearly if COVID-19 continues longer than anticipated, the effects to the nation’s road and bridge infrastructure are going to worsen.

According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. government’s much-needed COVID-19 response and relief has driven the fiscal-year deficit to an astounding $2.81 trillion.[xviii] Part of that deficit growth was a downturn in the economy and increased unemployment resulting in a revenue decrease, but the largest part was U.S. government spending in the form of COVID-19 response and relief packages. Specifically, almost 70 percent of the COVID-19 response and relief packages was based on borrowing through interest-bearing Treasury bills at 0.09 percent.[xix] Even though the interest levels are extremely low, there will still need to be future bill payers which will likely come in the form of increased federal taxes or spending cuts within the U.S. government. Since the HTF is not fully solvent and requires funding from the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund, one may anticipate a possible bill payer to be the HTF and a decrease in U.S. General Fund allocation to supplement it. If this occurs, there will be continued deferments and delays of much-needed capital investments, maintenance, and repairs to our deteriorating road and bridge infrastructure.

COVID-19 and the Future

Although indicators of tax receipts from HTF showed a steady rise of Americans traveling more since March and April, during May, June, and July (even peaking at slightly above normal levels than July 2019),[xx] this rebounding may just be a function of personal isolation/quarantine fatigue, a greater desire for normalcy, and possibly that people do not feel as threatened by COVID-19. Regardless of the reasons, there will still likely be long-term consequences of COVID-19 to our road and bridge infrastructure and the HTF could be further impacted by a need to recover from the huge federal deficits caused by COVID-19, greater COVID-19 mandates or restrictions due to a possible second wave of the coronavirus, a culture shift toward more teleworking caused by COVID-19, climate change[xxi]; and a growing requirement for reduced- and zero-emissions vehicles. All of this and more may further challenge both state and federal tax revenue for road and bridge capital investment, maintenance, and repair. A better linkage between the road and bridge infrastructure utilization, perhaps on a per mile driven basis versus a fuel consumption excise tax, should be considered because doing nothing places undue burden on those who cannot afford more fuel-efficient vehicles or electric vehicles, or where greater fuel efficiency is not easily obtainable like long-haul shipping and industry vehicles.

 

The authors are responsible for the content of this article. The views expressed do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Intelligence Community, or the U.S. Government.

 

About the Authors:

Suzanne N. Garrison MSSI, is currently the Deputy Chief of Staff for the National Media Exploitation Center at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Bethesda, Maryland. Mrs. Garrison has over 17 years of experience in architectural design and facility space planning within the Intelligence Community. Her expertise includes building renovation, construction and management, as well as move coordination throughout the National Capital Region. Mrs. Garrison holds a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from Virginia Tech and a Master of Science of Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University.

Mitchell E. Simmons Ph.D. MSA MSME, Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force (Retired) is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs & Program Director in the School of Science and Technology Intelligence at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Simmons teaches courses in Intelligence Collection, National Security Policy and Intelligence, and Infrastructure Assessment Vulnerability. Dr. Simmons has over 25 years of experience in acquisition, engineering, and program management within key agencies and his technical expertise includes physical and functional vulnerability of critical infrastructure from conventional explosives, nuclear, ground forces, and asymmetric threats, such as infectious disease. Dr. Simmons’ niche expertise is the exploitation of hard and deeply buried targets and he has personally collected intelligence in dozens of strategic facilities. Dr. Simmons is widely published in the classified and unclassified realm and his products have seen diverse readership, to include the national command authority and combatant commands. Dr. Simmons holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Ohio University, a M.S. in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Management from The Union Institute and University

 

[i] Marc Kodack, “Highway Bridge Deterioration from Climate Change Will Affect U.S. Military Mobility and Deployments,” Center for Climate & Security, December 18, 2019, accessed on October 29, 2020, https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/12/highway-bridge-deterioration-from-climate-change-will-affect-u-s-military-mobility-and-deployments/.
[ii] “What Makes a Grade?,” 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/making-the-grade/what-makes-a-grade/.
[iii] 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Grades-Chart.png.
[iv] 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Grades-Chart.png.
[v] The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 2020 Bridge Report (2020), https://artbabridgereport.org/reports/2020%20ARTBA%20 Bridge%20Report.pdf.
[vi] Samantha Raphelson, “Report Finds More Than 47,000 ‘Structurally Deficient’ Bridges In The U.S.,” NPR, April 5, 2019, accessed on November 1, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2019/04/05/710364158/report-finds-more-than-47-000-structurally-defic ient-bridges-in-the-u-s.
[vii] The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 2020 Bridge Report (2020), https://artbabridgereport.org/reports/2020%20ARTBA%20 Bridge%20Report.pdf.
[viii] The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 2020 Bridge Report (2020), https://artbabridgereport.org/reports/2020%20ARTBA%20 Bridge%20Report.pdf.
[ix] “Roads,” 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/roads/.
[x] “Frequently Asked Question,” American Road & Transportation Builders Association, accessed on November 3, 2020, https://www.artba.org/about/faq/#:~:text=How%20many%20miles%20of%20roads,to%20the%20Federal%20Highway%20Administration
[xi] “Roads,” 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, American Society of Civil Engineers, accessed October 21, 2020, https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/roads/.
[xii] Adam Johnson, “States with the Worst Road Infrastructure,” QuoteWizard Insurance News, May 5, 2020, https://quotewizard.com/news/posts/states-with-worst-infrastructure.
[xiii] CNBC, “Why U.S. Roads and Highways Are So Bad,” January 27, 2020, 10:36, https://youtu.be/ixL 3mDejAYU.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Cadie Thompson, “There’s a $1 Trillion Crisis Threatening the American Way Of Life As We Know It,” Business Insider, March 06, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/american-infrastructure-falling-apart-2017-2.
[xvi] TRIP, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” A National Transportation Research Nonprofit, May 2020, pg. 1., accessed November 1, 2020, https://tripnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/TRIP_Rural _Roads_Report_2020.pdf;
Ryan McCrimmon, “There’s a $211 Billion Backlog to Repair Crumbling Rural Roads and Bridges,” Politico, May 13, 2020, https://tripnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Rural_Roads_Politico_05-13 -2020.pdf.
[xvii] Ian Duncan, “Reeling from the loss of gas tax revenue during pandemic, states are deferring billions of dollars of transportation projects,” Washington Post, July, 10, 2020, accessed October 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/reeling-from-the-loss-of-gas-tax-revenue-during-pandemic-states-are-deferring-bxxxxxillions-of-dollars-of-transportation-projects/2020/07/09/b01c87da-b705-11ea-a510-55bf26485c93_story.html.
[xviii] Pew Research Center, “U.S. government spending spiked, revenue dropped in fiscal 2020 during pandemic,” August 13, 2020, accessed on October 25, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/13/the-u-s-budget-deficit-is-rising-amid-covid-19-but-public-concern-about-it-is-falling/ft_20-08-10_deficit_3/
[xix] Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “How Are We Paying for the Federal Response to the Coronavirus?” October 22, 2020, accessed October 26, 2020, https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2020/10/what-role-has-federal-debt-played-in-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic.
[xx] Nancy Moran, “Fuel-Tax Receipts Rebound as Americans Return to the Road: Chart, ” Bloomberg, August 12, 2020, accessed October 29, 2020, https://news.bloombergtax.com/daily-tax-report/fuel-tax-receipts-rebound-as-americans-return-to-the-road-chart.
[xxi] Marc Kodack, “Highway Bridge Deterioration from Climate Change Will Affect U.S. Military Mobility and Deployments,” Center for Climate & Security, December 18, 2019, accessed on October 29, 2020, https://climateandsecurity.org/2019/12/highway-bridge-deterioration-from-climate-change-will-affect-u-s-military-mobility-and-deployments/.
Suzanne N. Garrison
Suzanne N. Garrison MSSI, is currently the Deputy Chief of Staff for the National Media Exploitation Center at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Bethesda, Maryland. Mrs. Garrison has over 17 years of experience in architectural design and facility space planning within the Intelligence Community. Her expertise includes building renovation, construction and management, as well as move coordination throughout the National Capital Region. Mrs. Garrison holds a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from Virginia Tech and a Master of Science of Strategic Intelligence from the National Intelligence University.

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