There are plenty of potholes ahead for America’s transportation network, yet even as the price of gas rises, so has the public’s understanding of the challenges of planning, prioritizing and funding the nation’s infrastructure.
In fact, more than three-quarters (77%) of Americans agree with President Barack Obama that the federal government should increase spending to repair our crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems.
In its latest America Thinks survey, HNTB Corp. finds many people in America acknowledging that much of the nation’s infrastructure has surpassed its intended life span, is in need of repair and that the current gas tax is not enough to foot such hefty bills. In fact, most Americans are willing to support large-scale infrastructure projects through increased tolls or taxes as long as they can directly reap or be assured of the benefits.
“Our country always has made great strides in improving economic opportunities and the nation’s quality of life when investing in its transportation network,” said Paul Yarossi, president of HNTB Holdings Ltd. “This can’t be a partisan issue.”
Two-thirds (66%) of Americans think most U.S. infrastructure is past its intended lifespan, and more than 4 in 5 (81%) would give our country’s infrastructure a C grade or lower.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a third of the nation’s major highways are in poor shape while more than 152,000 bridges—1 in 4—are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s largest public transit agencies face an $80 billion maintenance backlog just to bring their rail systems to a state of good repair.
More than half (57%) of Americans think that federal and state gas taxes are no longer enough to pay for the maintenance of our roads and bridges. This number has increased slightly since February 2009, when 51% felt this way.
“A healthy transportation system is essential to a healthy American economy,” Yarossi said. Yet according to the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials, between 1980 and 2006 traffic on our interstate highway system grew by 150%, while interstate capacity grew by only 15%. The U.S. DOT estimates the annual cost of simply maintaining the highway system’s current capabilities is 12% more than the government is spending. For mass transit, the gap is 25%.
There is an added bonus here in the eyes of many Americans. Nearly 3 in 5 (58%) think investing in significant infrastructure projects is a better way out of the current recession than cutting expensive public works projects to pay down deficits.
What’s more, many people across the country don’t mind spending more of their own money on enhancements beyond the immediate future. Almost 3 in 4 (74%) Americans would be willing to spend more on various transportation expenses or taxes if the money was put towards long-term transportation improvements.
Close to half of Americans (47%) think the most pressing infrastructure issue is how to pay for improvements. Yarossi said there are no easy answers: “Our freeways aren’t free.”
Among respondents willing to spend more, the most popular expenditure would be a flat-rate increase: tolls on roads and bridges (44%). Less popular options would more likely be associated with a percentage hike, such as the gas tax (28%), sales tax (24%), income tax (15%) or property tax (11%).
In fact, Americans will shell out cash for a very concrete reward. More than half (58%) of Americans would pay more each month in order to reduce the time they spend in traffic by 20%. These citizens would spend an average of $13 per month—more than $150 a year—to make it happen.
However, Americans are split on the issue of gas tax increases that traditionally support federal highway and transit programs. Although a slight majority (57%) agree that the gas tax should rise and fall along with the rate of inflation, close to two in three (64%) Americans would not support a 10-cents-per-gallon bump in gas tax. The Obama administration and Congressional leaders have repeatedly said they cannot support a gas tax increase during a down economy.
Yarossi emphasized there will not be a one-size fits all answer: “We need to move beyond the gas tax and expand other forms of funding, including tolling, public-private partnerships, a National Infrastructure Bank and programs that encourage private investment, such as TIFIA and revival of the Build America Bonds program.”
He added that any long-term vision must restore U.S. transportation infrastructure to its full potential, creating a plan that is comprehensive, moves traffic efficiently and makes citizens more mobile by giving them more choices.
“Investing in a modern, comprehensive system means shifting our thinking and looking at multiple modes of transportation supported by multiple modes of funding,” Yarossi said. “Traditionally roads, rails and ports have been made to compete against each other. That’s got to change.”
HNTB's America Thinks survey polled a random, nationwide sample of 1,124 Americans Feb. 18-23, 2011. It was conducted by Kelton Research, which used an e-mail invitation and online survey. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population ages 18 and over. The margin of error is +/-2.9%.