Roads and Bridges

The ASCE 2021 Report Card gives our roads a D grade, the same grade they earned in 2017. The nation’s bridges got a grade of C in 2021, down from a C+ in 2017. ASCE does not provide an estimate of what it would take to increase the grade of our roads and bridges to a B separate from the overall surface transportation category.

Investing in improved roads and bridges is one of the areas of greatest agreement between President Biden and Senate Republicans. Though President Biden was initially calling for substantially more than Senate Republicans, he adjusted to propose close to the same amount. President Biden’s revised American Jobs Plan proposed $13.9 billion in new spending per year and Senate Republicans propose $13.7 billion. President Biden’s plan represented a 27% increase in federal baseline funding and the Senate Republicans’ plan is a 26% increase. At $24.2 billion, the CSC plan that President Biden now supports would increase federal funding by 46%, the most of the four plans. At $20.6 billion, the PSC plan is the second most proposed and a 39% increase in federal spending.

The Case for a Big Investment

Supporters argue that a significant increase in road and bridges funding attracts such broad, bipartisan consensus because no other category of infrastructure more directly impacts Americans’ daily lives. Sitting in slow traffic is a major frustration experienced everyday by millions of Americans, supporters observe.

Beyond inconvenience, supporters argue, there is also broad consensus that the substandard condition of too many of our roads and bridges imposes unacceptable economic, safety, and environmental costs. Economically, roads and bridges in poor condition are costly in terms of delays caused by traffic congestion and extra repairs. In terms of safety, they argue, poor roads and bridges cause too many preventable injuries and deaths. In terms of the environment, longer travel times due to congestion also mean higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

The Case for a Smaller Investment

There are some ranging from the very conservative to the very liberal who argue for more modest levels of road and bridge funding. First, they argue that most of the critical roads and bridges are in an acceptable condition and that the economic, safety, and environmental costs are often exaggerated. Increasing federal spending by more than 25%, they argue, only means that we will invest in roads and bridges further down the cost/benefit ratio priority list.

Second, supporters of a more modest increase observe that expanding their capacity does little in the long run to address the traffic congestion problem. They cite the common experience in which highway expansion only initially results in less congestion and shorter commute times. Over time, those shorter commute times make living farther out from the urban centers more feasible. Consequently, more and cheaper housing is built farther out from cities creating the congestion problem all over again. We will never get ahead of the curve, they argue, by simply expanding road capacity.

Third, some point out that we came to more fully appreciate the advantages of remote work during the pandemic. By not driving our cars to work, some argue, we not only save time and money, but we also reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by car accidents and reduce carbon emissions. Supporters of a more modest infrastructure investment argue that we do not yet know how much the experience with remote work will decrease the congestion and wear and tear on America’s roads long term. Now, they argue, is not the time for a major increase in roads funding.

The Evidence

ASCE finds that 43% of our roads are in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has stayed steady for many years. The vast majority of those roads in poor and mediocre condition are more minor roads, with most interstate freeways in good or excellent condition. ASCE reports that 7.5% of the nation’s bridges are designated structurally deficient, an improvement from 12.1% a decade ago.

ASCE also finds that 30% of the trips in the United States are impacted by severe or extreme traffic congestion, causing an extra 8.8 billion hours in travel time and burning an extra 3.3 billion gallons of fuel. Roads in sub-standard condition also cause nearly $130 billion per year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs.

Nevertheless, ASCE acknowledges that the evidence shows how elusive it is to reduce congestion impacts by spending more on our roads. In part, this is because of “induced demand,” the technical term for the common effect observed that decreasing congestion by investing in increased road capacity is often ineffective because it leads to greater housing development farther out from cities. In its 2021 Report Card, ASCE said:

“However, as every lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 annually in operation and maintenance, roadway expansion can be more costly and less efficient than operational changes. In fact, in many cases, roadway expansion can lead to induced demand and further sprawl.”

The ASCE figure of $24,000 in annual operation and maintenance costs for every lane-mile does not include the much higher upfront capital costs of building new lanes in the first place.