In 2015 we saw ratification of the five-year, $305 billion surface transportation bill known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act.
Prior to this, in 2012, Congress enacted the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), and while it was short in duration, the reforms to policy in MAP-21 were significant, including a near doubling of funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), the core federal-aid highway program dedicated to roadway safety infrastructure projects. The FAST Act not only continued this program, but also increased the funding levels slightly.
As a nation, are our transportation infrastructure investment needs being met? Certainly not. We are witnessing an uptick in roadway fatalities after years of record low numbers. It is too early to tell if this is a trend, but it adds an extra level of impetus to enact a long-term, safety-focused highway bill. The FAST Act is a significant step in the right direction. In terms of the positive safety implications of the FAST Act, I am quite bullish. This optimism is predicated on the assumption that states will be able to meet their share of funding. Many states have increased their state transportation revenues; however, reports indicate that some states are struggling to meet that match. Nonetheless, the vast majority of roadway network owners will be able to deploy life-saving safety countermeasures.
Some policy changes within the FAST Act also will add to increased safety infrastructure investments and general safety for the motoring public. Congress made a change to HSIP to ensure those funds are used exclusively for infrastructure projects and cannot be flexed to other programs. In addition, within the Work Zone Safety Grant, which was increased and continued, training for the inspection, maintenance and installation of guardrail systems was added as an eligible activity. This seemingly small change will be significant to educating roadway workers and owners on how to correctly manage roadside safety hardware devices.
States also must develop safety performance targets and measures to showcase how they will achieve reductions in fatalities and serious injuries.
66 jumbo jets
In 2014, 32,675 men, women and children were killed on U.S. roads, and the preliminary estimates indicate an increase of 8% in roadway fatalities for 2015. If these fatalities occurred from airline crashes, it would be the equivalent of 66 Boeing 747s falling out of the sky each year. Not only would this be intolerable, it would absolutely doom our aviation industry. Yet many Americans assume that a possible car crash is just the cost of doing business in their daily commuting life. This mentality and culture must change to one that has only zero fatalities as an acceptable goal. The FAST Act’s focus on safety investments and projects will help target some of these challenges. States will be able to make significant investments in roadway safety infrastructure projects. Moreover, the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) focus on its Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative accelerates the deployment of new safety technologies and best practices. High friction surface treatments (HFST) are a prime example. EDC highlights these treatments, which increase the level of pavement friction, thus dramatically reducing crashes and fatalities due to wet weather, curves or intersections. In one Kentucky application, there was a 91% reduction in wet weather roadway departure crashes and a 78% reduction in dry weather roadway departure crashes after HFST was installed. These are the types of projects that state and local governments will be able to undertake with five years of HSIP investments from the FAST Act.
Make HTF great again
So how do we achieve that goal of zero fatalities? A solvent Highway Trust Fund (HTF) will be the linchpin for any new transportation legislation. The FAST Act did not address the current yearly shortfall that the HTF experiences. The law is funded through a patchwork of funding mechanisms, including significant non-user fee funds. This solution was successful for this particular authorization; however, the patches were simply one-time solutions and cannot be used again for future highway bills. The long-term solvency of the HTF is still elusive at this point. That said, the HTF is mostly funded through federal gas and diesel excise taxes. Additionally, with average vehicle fleet fuel efficiency increasing and the advent and further deployment of electric vehicles, the continued stagnant rate for these fees has diminished the solvency of the HTF.
Looking forward, Congress must address how to pay for federal transportation investments—and stakeholders must push Congress to make this issue a priority. The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) and many other national organizations support both raising and indexing the current gas and diesel user fees and eventually switching to a mileage-based user fee. This switch would allow highly fuel-efficient and electric vehicles to be equitably captured within the pay-for system. It’s important to note that this new mileage-based system would supplant the current gasoline and diesel taxes, not supplement them.
The average driver pays $97 in federal gas taxes annually. With 58,791 structurally deficient bridges, urban and suburban congestion at all-time highs, many rural roads being turned into gravel roads, and 32,675 roadway fatalities, we must invest more into our transportation network.
Though we celebrate passage of a long-term bill with $12.5 billion in roadway safety infrastructure funding, we must yet educate Congress on existing infrastructure needs and ring the warning bell on the future solvency of the HTF. Although 2020 is still four years away, Congress must begin to consider funding options now so a plan is in place by the time the next highway bill is crafted and voted on. Sixty-six jumbo jets dropping out of the sky is unacceptable for any mode of transportation.