Sixty years ago—on June 29, 1956—President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, launching the Interstate Highway System and the federal motor-fuels tax that funded the lion’s share of its construction.
Since then, according to a June 27 report from The Road Information Program (TRIP), traffic and congestion on the Interstates has worsened and funding is falling short of what’s needed to maintain and upgrade the network of highways and bridges.
Last December’s $305-billion, five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act, helped a bit. Construction and transportation industry officials like its long span, saying gives them more certainty to plan multi-year projects. But they also say that the law’s annual increases are far short of the sums needed.
Barring a major breakthrough in the next administration and next Congress, however the FAST Act’s numbers will be the ones state DOTs and construction firms will see until 2020.
In the meantime, what can the federal government, states and localities do to try to close the gap? U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says, “Yes, we have a challenge with the upkeep of our conventional transportation system. But more fundamentally we have a lot of unexamined assumptions about what it is that we need to do to increase mobility, going forward.”
Meeting with reporters at DOT headquarters on June 29, Foxx said, “Every time a transportation bill comes up, the only thing people want to talk about is, how much and how long? And I think the question of what we are spending our money on is as fundamental a question as anything else.”
He recalls that the Obama administration’s proposed six-year, $478-billion GROW AMERICA bill, sent to Congress in March 2015, was longer and had more funding than the FAST Act.
It retained the long-standing 80-20 highway-transit split in Highway Trust Fund dollars. But for its funding above the trust fund’s capacity, the administration sought to provide a larger share for transit and other non-highway transportation.
Foxx continued, “Why? Because if you look at how the country is organizing itself larger numbers of our population are coalescing around cities.”
He added, “Those cities are increasingly constrained [geographically] and the possibility of adding lane-miles is reducing as that population increases. And so what’s going to become important is having greater transportation choices in those places.”
Foxx said, “We’ve tried to push on that conversation and there was precious little policy discussion in the last highway bill.” He said, “And I think if I have a wish for the next time, this coming round, it’s that there will be at least equal attention paid to the policy as there is to the funding and the length of time that funding exists.”