Congress is one tiny step closer to funding America's highways, as the Senate decided Wednesday night to open debate on their transportation bill as the July 31 deadline looms. The Highway Trust Fund has been in dire straits the last few years, spending more than it's taking in. Because it gets its money from the federal gas tax, the trust fund has suffered as cars have grown more fuel-efficient and some Americans have cut back on their driving.
Amid this fight, you could be forgiven for thinking that America's roads are getting worse all the time. Politicians constantly invoke America's "crumbling roads and bridges," and America's roads merit a grade of D on the widely cited report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (a trade group whose members, to be fair, have a stake in road-building projects).
It's true spending on U.S. roads just keeps slipping, when you compare it to the size of the economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office, as of 2010, total spending was more than one-third lower than it had been in the 1960s:
But here's a surprise — the condition of those roads appears to be getting better, when you look at Federal Highway Administration data. According to the organization's latest condition and performance report, the share of miles traveled on roads with a ride quality ranked "good" has in fact improved markedly. The share on "acceptable" roads has held more or less steady, though it declined slightly in 2010.
That data only goes through 2010, but the Society of Civil Engineers agrees that roads have improved further (if slightly), having improved their grade slightly from their 2009 report card to their 2013 report card. (And it's not because we're driving more on the nice roads, says Adie Tomer, a fellow at Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program — the roads are simply getting smoother.)
If you follow the debate over infrastructure spending, or if you ever fume your way through morning-commute highway-parking lots, or if you swerve to miss potholes, that might make no sense. But America's roads are getting better. How has that happened, despite stagnant spending?
It's because priorities have shifted, says Tomer. Multiyear building projects wound down, including the interstate highway system — though started in 1956, it still had some segments that, as of the late 1990s, weren't yet complete — and the transportation focus shifted from building to maintenance, he says. The stimulus passed in 2009 likewise overwhelmingly spent on repairing versus building new roads.
"It's not a surprise that as we've been doing that, the conditions of the roads are going up, there's more with both more passable and good grades, and that's a really positive sign," Tomer said. "We're probably not where we want to be yet, but it's kind of an endless fight."
Congress Could Pass More Funding ... But Then What?
That "endless fight" is an important point to consider as Congress inches closer to passing a transit bill. Keeping the funding stream going is one basic step. Congress (and the states that also fund and undertake the building projects) have some bigger questions to answer about the state of transportation in the U.S.
For one thing, just because roads are getting better doesn't mean they're good enough. If only two-thirds of roads are "good," there's plenty of room for improvement, Tomer points out.
It also doesn't mean highway spending (at the federal or state and local levels) is at the right level. While there is no hard and fast "optimal level" of highway spending, Tomer said, there is such thing as too high or too low.
"There is probably a floor, and there's definitely a ceiling," he said. "We probably are near [the floor]."
Really, the highway funding fight is an opportunity for members of Congress (and, by extension, states) to think about their priorities. Parts of the interstate system are reaching the end of their useful lives, for example. Can highways keep getting patched or at some point do they have to rebuilt? Or, perhaps, has the country overbuilt in some parts of the country?
These sorts of tough choices are popping up nationwide. Iowa's secretary of transportation, for example, recently declared that the state both needs fewer roads and can't afford the number it currently has.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is planning to spend $7 billion on highways around Milwaukee — while basic repair projects languish — as Michael Grunwald argues in a piece in Politico.
"Our approach right now at the federal level is, 'Let's throw some money at the problem, and let's try to get as much as we can get,' " said Paul Lewis, director of policy and finance at Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan transportation think tank. "But the federal program doesn't necessarily target the money to the most effective projects."
Roads Aren't Everything
In addition, roads aren't always the answer. If you're concerned with solving massive gridlock, for example, roads might make traffic worse. More investments in public transit might be a better choice to reduce traffic.
So as it considers these periodic patches to funding bills, Congress (and states, who end up using the highway funds) need to think about not just how much funding it gives out, but the kind of long-term projects they need to fund.
Some long-term projects have languished while Congress has passed multiple stopgap measures. A road that requires years of planning can stall if federal funds to help build it are only authorized for the next couple of months. The current bill would only have funding for three years, as Politico reported Wednesday night, though it would set policy for six.
"Even a three-year commitment, that would be significant. But back in the day, [with] a five- or six-year transportation bill, states could plan accordingly," says Casey Dinges, senior managing director at the American Society of Civil Engineers. "The states have been acting responsibly, and Congress has to get in line with the states."
And even while road quality improves, long-term fixes will be needed, Lewis added.
"A good road might mean it's recently received a small layer of asphalt to patch it up for a year and a half, and in a year an a half it will be marked by potholes again," he pointed out.
So while funding quantity matters, politicians at the federal and state levels also need to think about the quality of that spending.
"What it leaves us with is: What do we do next?" Tomer said. "How do we need to build our communities, especially from a transportation perspective, to get people where they want to go?"