I’ve been writing this column for more than two decades. During this time, I’ve researched and written dozens of policy studies on transportation infrastructure, advised federal and state transportation agencies, and served on various transportation committees and commissions. From all of this I’ve concluded that the way we fund and manage the U.S. highway system is broken and needs serious rethinking if it’s going to meet the needs of 21st-century America.
The problems are legion, beginning with the huge direct cost of traffic congestion in our 200 or so urban areas—a whopping $160 billion per year just in wasted time and fuel. And while our highways and bridges are not “crumbling,” there are chronic problems of deferred maintenance, leading to many rough roads and a surprisingly large number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges.
Our highway funding system based on per-gallon fuel taxes is breaking down, for several reasons. A growing share of the proceeds is no longer spent on highways, so people have come to view gas taxes as just another tax, which politicians are therefore leery of increasing. Yet as cars continue to get more efficient—using fewer gallons to go a given distance—revenues from per-gallon fuel taxes can’t keep pace with either the growth in driving or the cost of building and maintaining highways.