I have traveled the Intestate Highways many times over the years. That used to be the smoothest fast way to go. Now the interstates are filled with potholes and traffic. The traffic I can deal with, even through big city interchanges. It’s those (-fill in your favorite expletive-) potholes that bang up the tires, throw out the alignment, and hurt my back. It is so bad that the American Society of Civil Engineers rated our roads a D with over 40% in need of repair. The World Economic Forum rates the United States 13th in a list of countries Overall Infrastructure with 87.9 score. Recently, IH 20 through Shreveport, IH 59 through Chattanooga, and IH 40 through Knoxville all fall into that category for me.
Why is it like that?
Let’s face it, most Interstate Highways are nearly 70-years old. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, thanks to President Eisenhower’s administration, developed the system as we know it. So, age comes into play. But not just that.
The state of highway engineering was not at today’s level. The design laid asphalt over a thinly packed layer of dirt. Climatic conditions cause frost-wedging in winter to high temperatures in summer. The result breaks up parts of the asphalt creating a crumbling roadway and potholes. Today, we can even lay blame on climate warming.
Wait, there’s more to it. In 1956 we Americans drove over 600 million miles. As of 2019 we racked up over 3 trillion vehicle miles of travel. The 2020 pandemic dropped that by a few hundred million, but we are on track to make up for it. The rising cost of fuel has slowed us down somewhat.
Speaking of cost, there’s that little problem with money. Fixing all those worn-out roads cost a lot, and those costs are rising. However, funding for those repairs did not increase for many years. To pay for the Interstate Highway System, Eisenhower pushed through the Highway Revenue Act of 1956. That law created a federal excise tax with monies flowing into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). This “gas tax” contributes to the price per gallon that we pay at the pump. That remained stable for 28 years when lawmakers raised it in 1993 from 14.1 cents to 18.4 cents. Unfortunately, that is not adjusted for inflation which is up 93%.
How can we fix it?
Let’s begin with the money. The “gas tax” rate is locked into a flat rate, changeable only by Congress. Inflationary adjustment would bring it to 33 cents per gallon. The Congressional Budget Office projects a $250 billion shortfall for the HTF by 2033. The Treasury Department makes up the difference from the General Fund transferring $275 billion since 2008.
What about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) of 2021? Nope. That is another transfer of money. The US imposes the lowest excise tax on fuel of all G7 countries. To generate revenue for the HTF Congress must tie the gas excise tax to the inflation rate. That will immediately add a few billion. However, there are other ways: replacing the gas tax with a percentage-based fee, imposing a vehicle mileage use fee, adding a road fee to the purchase price, etc.
Only when sustainable funding stabilizes the HTF, can maintenance and repair begin. Let us remember that states add road taxes as well. In combination the HTF, state tax, and the financial injection from the BIL will help to remove those potholes, or keep them filled at least.
American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. https://infrastructurereportcard.org/
Badlam, Justin, Tony D’Emidio, Rob Dunn, Adi Kumar, and Sara O’Rourke. (November 12, 2021). The US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Breaking it down. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-us-bipartisan-infrastructure-law-breaking-it-down
Peter G. Peterson Foundation. (March 16, 2021). It’s been 28 years since we last raised the gas tax, and its purchasing power has eroded. https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2021/03/its-been-28-years-since-we-last-raised-the-gas-tax-and-its-purchasing-power-has-eroded
Peter G. Peterson Foundation. (March 2, 2023). The Highway Trust Fund Explained. https://www.pgpf.org/budget-basics/budget-explainer-highway-trust-fund
U.S. Department of Transportation. (November 18, 2021). USDOT Releases State by State Fact Sheets Highlighting Benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/usdot-releases-state-state-fact-sheets-highlighting-benefits-bipartisan
USDOT Federal Highway Administration. (2020). Highway Statistics Series. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2020/vmt421c.cfm
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (February 27, 2023 ). How much tax do we pay on a gallon of gasoline and on a gallon of diesel fuel? https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=10&t=5
Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation. (January 25, 2017). Pothole repair [photograph]. https://www.flickr.com/photos/oregondot/32525726085