The challenges of maintaining the massive network of roads and bridges spanning the U.S. have been well documented. There are 4 million miles of roads crisscrossing the country, carrying more traffic with each passing year.
Paradoxically, public spending on highway infrastructure has actually been on a declining trend since 2002, according to the 2017 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. It cited an $836 billion backlog of highway and bridge capital needs, more than half of which is needed to repair existing highways.
Overburdened and underfunded roads and bridges are an undeniable and growing safety risk.
“Most people don’t think about something until it doesn’t work,” says Meghan Jansen, a leader in the planning and policy group at Burns & McDonnell. “As long as we’re able to drive and we’re relatively happy with the condition of our roads and bridges and we can’t see any problems, it’s not really an eminent concern. One of the challenges is education around this issue and increasing awareness so people will want to invest their time to explore solutions.”
Much of the funding for repairs, replacements and improvements comes from gasoline taxes, which were last raised at the federal level in 1994.
“The needs keep growing and the funding is not increasing,” Jansen says. “It is a challenge for elected officials and decision-makers to help people see that what we’re doing is not enough, and we’re going to have to make some hard choices.”
Backlog of highway and bridge capital needs
Source: ASCE 2017 Infrastructure Report Card
The introduction of autonomous vehicles (AVs) and rapidly expanding use of electric vehicles (EVs) are forcing reconsideration of some of the basic assumptions behind paying for transportation work, says Bobby Cottam, an industry leader and doctoral candidate focused on vehicle technologies at Burns & McDonnell.
“Back when everyone’s car was roughly the same fuel efficiency, a gas tax was a pretty direct measure of how much you use the road,” Cottam says. But fuel efficiencies are now wildly varied amid increasing efficiency standards. Meanwhile, the use of electric vehicles is surging.
“Some people think the gas tax isn’t so bad if we had just been updating it more,” Cottam says. “Maybe if we charged a tax on the electricity used to power EVs, there would be no paradigm shift. That’s one idea that’s been thrown around.”
AVs pose different challenges, depending to some degree on how they are deployed. Cottam says the industry is generally working under the assumption that the federal government is not going to mandate specific vehicle or infrastructure improvements. However, the potential for many advanced safety and traffic efficiencies might depend upon significant infrastructure upgrades in terms of roadway configuration, connectivity and superfast wireless networks.
“Fundamentally, the most valuable resource departments of transportation have is their
right-of-way,” Cottam says. “If somebody needs to put power lines along that road, that’s probably going to be in the right-of-way, and that offers the potential for some funding sources. Say you want 5G internet to support connected vehicles, but you need to put a tower up every so often; the DOT might consider putting that technology on its streetlights for a fee.
“Without a lot of direct funding outside of taxes, you can think about interesting ways to incorporate those right-of-way assets. They don’t want to just sell off the right-of-way because the roads are still a public good that needs to be maintained, but they also might like to monetize it to fund upgrades so that taxpayers don’t have to bear all of the costs directly.”
Finding new ways to measure road usage is going to be essential for better connecting the impact that individuals are having on the transportation system with how they pay for the benefit.
Along the East Coast of the U.S., the I-95 Corridor Coalition is conducting the second phase of a study of mileage-based user fees (MBUFs). Burns & McDonnell is helping the coalition perform this study, which involves putting a piece of technology into vehicles to track the miles driven.
“In addition to having a device and recording mileage, the folks we’re engaging through this pilot every month receive a sample invoice that explains what you would have paid in gas, based on the current gas tax, and what you would have paid under a mileage-based user fee,” Jansen says. “Throughout this process, we are surveying the pilot users and having conversations around their perceptions of the MBUF and what challenges and benefits they see.”
The primary purposes of the MBUF study are to test feasibility and identify drawbacks and challenges. One of the clearest challenges to date is public education.
“We expect to turn on the faucet and have clean drinking water, or that when we drive over a bridge it’s going to be safe and in good condition, or that if I flip a switch, my light’s going to come on,” Jansen says.
“A lot goes on before it reaches the end user, who just wants it to work. I think where we’re talking about funding mechanisms that would affect the end user who pays them — such as the gas tax paying into infrastructure — the user perception becomes an important piece in determining which funding solutions are going to be effective and implementable.”