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As States Add Money to Fix Roads, U.S. Is Urged to Ante Up

Drivers in America topped 3.2 trillion miles in 2018, traveling countless roads and bridges in dire need of repair and improvement, and they are showing little sign of slowing down.

The American Society of Civil Engineers painted a bleak picture of the country’s byways in its Infrastructure Report Card in the spring of 2017, the most recent of its every-four-years editions. The organization’s assessment resulted in an overall D-plus grade. The nation’s roads earned an underwhelming D, while bridges slid by with a C-plus. In all, 45 percent of the nation’s roads were deemed in poor condition.

Since then, the group estimates that vehicle travel has increased 17 percent alongside an unequal 5 percent increase in new roadways. The result has been 6.9 billion hours a year of traffic delays, which cost American motorists roughly $616 each in 2017, the last year tracked.

“You have a lot more cars, but not much more new roadway,” Andrew Herrmann, a former president of the society, said in an interview. “We’re falling behind due to the poor condition of the nation’s highways.”

Federal spending on road infrastructure is struggling to keep up; federal lawmakers staved off a cut to the national Highway Trust Fund last year that would have pulled $7.6 billion away from state highway budgets. This has left the states to fill in some of the gaps, and voters around the country last year approved huge transportation investments via ballot measures.

“The ballot results are a great reminder infrastructure investment remains one of the few areas where red states, blue states, Republicans and Democrats can all come together,” Dave Bauer, president of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said in a statement. “It should also demonstrate to lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the public will be on board for the passage of a long-term bill that significantly boosts highway and transit investment at the federal level.”

The need is great.

“Most systems that make up our network of interstate highways are at least 50 years old, so there has to be substantial reinvestment to make sure those assets can keep up with daily wear and tear,” Jim Tymon, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said in an interview. “States and localities are doing their part, and this is a great opportunity for the federal government to do its part.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers says there is a huge backlog of federal highway projects that need funding, to the tune of $836 billion.

Voters are unlikely to know those details — only that their commute is bumpy. But out of 305 transportation-related state and local ballot measures that went before voters last year, 270 — more than 88 percent — were approved, according to the Transportation Investment Advocacy Center at the road builders group.

Most of the ballot measures involved property tax increases to pay for road repairs. The road builders group reported that 57 ballot initiatives across 12 states had the potential to raise $20 million in revenue each. All told, voters approved $7.7 billion worth of investment into transportation projects and $1.9 billion in continued funding over the next quarter-century. Washington State and Colorado were among the few to vote for tax cuts that are likely to squeeze highway budgets.

The issue is important at the local level, too. The United States Conference of Mayors published a campaign agenda wish list in December that called on 2020 presidential candidates to say what they would do to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund, regulate new transportation technology and strengthen public transportation.

“While Washington is so often paralyzed by partisanship, mayors continue to show how things can get done,” Bryan Barnett, the group’s president and the mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich., said in a statement.

President Trump’s initial infrastructure plan — coming in widely mocked “infrastructure week” presentations and promising “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land” — stalled a few times before resurfacing again last spring. A $2 trillion infrastructure package seemed politically plausible, until impeachment murmurs became a roar and appeared to sideline the issue.

In the meantime, Democratic candidates have begun talking about infrastructure. At this point, a majority of them have called for big spending on transit infrastructure. Only John Delaney — well outside the top tier of candidates — has proposed raising the federal gasoline tax, which directly finances the Highway Trust Fund. That option seems politically unlikely, but the Congressional Budget Office has made a number of recommendations regarding highway funding, including charging motorists based on road use and initiating performance benchmarks for road projects.

“There are a number of pilot programs going on right now to test vehicle use fees that are going extremely well,” Mr. Tymon said. “It’s not something you’re likely to see in the next federal transportation bill, but it’s something you could see in the next five to 10 years.”

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, most states have raised their gasoline taxes over the last several years. Along with the ballot initiatives passed to support highway projects, states could take a bigger role in their own infrastructure destinies. Ironically, more state-level control and funding is one of the tent poles of Mr. Trump’s thus far unrealized infrastructure policy.

“How many ‘infrastructure weeks’ have we had over the past few years? We need one that sticks,” Mr. Herrmann said. “State and local governments are working hard to get things done, but we need the federal government to step up with a bill.”

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NYT > Business