Interstate system arrives at crossroads

As the interstate system's 40th anniversary is observed, an aging infrastructure and inadequate funding has put the nation's transportation system at a crossroads

Will Wilkins / December 28, 2000

As America observes the 40th anniversary of its Interstate Highway System
in 1996, we are truly at a crossroads in laying the foundation for our nation's
transportation system in the 21st century. The interstate system is generally
regarded as the greatest system of highways in the world, and its role in
promoting economic development has contributed significantly to making the
U.S. a world economic leader.

But the level of funding required to make much-needed improvements to the
system in the years ahead is in jeopardy because of increasing emphasis
on cutting federal and state budgets and diverting motorist user fees away
from needed road and bridge improvements at the federal and state level.

The mobility provided to our nation's citizens who drive on the 3.9 million
miles of roads and cross the country's 574,000 bridges is essential to the
quality of life we enjoy today. While our nation's highway system remains
the best of its kind in the world, many of our roads and bridges are approaching
the end of their design life. If they are to continue serving our country's
motorists and promote commerce, these roads and bridges will need improvements
and upgrades, which will require significantly higher levels of investment.

The inadequate funding levels were documented by the U.S. DOT in its biennial
report 1995 Status of the Nation's Surface Transportation System: Conditions
and Performance, which found that the nation should be spending almost double
the current investment level to provide an efficient, safe system of roads
and bridges.

Currently the nation only is investing $35 billion annually on capital improvements
to its roads and bridges. But the report found that it will require an annual
investment of $50 billion to simply maintain the current level of deterioration
of our roads and bridges. The U.S. DOT report also found that the nation
should be spending $68 billion now, increasing to an average of about $74
billion annually on its roads and bridges over a 20-year period to provide
the greatest cost-benefit.

One of the reasons that highway improvement needs are not being met is that
motorists user fees, which originally were designed to pay only for road
and bridge improvements, have been diverted to the general federal budget,
mass transit and other non-highway projects. The diversion or exemption
of federal-highway user fees increased 577% between 1985 and 1995, jumping
from $2 billion to about $13 billion annually at the federal level. Another
$12 billion was diverted at state and local levels in 1995. If the $25 billion
diverted by all levels of government had been used for road and bridge improvements,
it would have enabled much of the needs cited in the U.S. DOT report to
be met.

The need for increased investment also can be seen in the fact that pavement
conditions on our nation's roads have declined for the last two years in
a row, the first time that has happened in at least 10 years. In 1994 (the
last year data are available) more than 60% of our roads were in poor or
fair condition. About one-third of our bridges were deficient.

In addition, travel on the nation's roads continues to soar, thus increasing
the wear and tear on the system. Between 1984 and 1994, total highway vehicle
miles of travel (VMT) increased 37.5% to 2.3 trillion VMT. U.S. DOT forecasts
that highway travel will continue to increase at approximately 2.15% annually
and will reach approximately 3.8 trillion miles by 2015.

Highway safety also has been adversely affected by the nation's lack of
adequate road and bridge funding. U.S. traffic fatalities increased in 1995
for the third year in a row. More than three-quarters of these fatalities
occurred on two-lane roads-roads which are only half as safe as roads with
four lanes and a median. Yet 72.7% of the nation's major roads excluding
interstates-115,594 miles-are two-lane roads. The U.S. DOT has found that
when two-lane roads were upgraded to four-lane roads with a median, highway
fatalities decreased by 71%.

While highway needs are mounting, federal lawmakers' proposals to date have
focused on making transportation spending cuts. As our nation approaches
reauthorization of the federal transportation program in 1997, funding levels
for its road and bridge system will come to the forefront. The debate over
funding levels for highways in the next few years will determine what approach
can be taken to address issues such as congestion, traffic safety and economic

TRIP's 1996 Highway Funding Methods, Conditions and Use report details the
condition of the nation's roads and bridges, funding and use of the system,
and travel by the nation's 198 million cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses.

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