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Our three policy recommendations for cutting the maintenance backlog in half

Yesterday we discussed our first of three new principles and outcomes for transportation investment: “Prioritize repair.” But how? Today we’re taking a quick look at three policy recommendations Congress should consider implementing to help reduce the maintenance backlog by half.

It’s Maintenance Week! This week we’ll be exploring our first principle for transportation investment, prioritize maintenance, in-depth. On Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. EST, we’re hosting a tweet chat using the hashtag #FixItFirst. We’re also holding a briefing on Capitol Hill with the Future of Transportation Caucus and an evening salon for journalists And stay tuned for more blog posts!

For decades, presidents, governors, and members of Congress from both parties have decried our crumbling roadyway infrastructure, sounding increasingly dire warnings. Yet Congress has repeatedly failed to require states to actually repair that infrastructure before creating new financial liabilities in the form of new roads and bridges. As a result, the percentage of our roads in poor condition nationwide has increased from 14 percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2018. 

Expanding the system while ignoring basic maintenance is a recipe for disaster. With the Highway Trust Fund approaching insolvency (or already there, technically) and our maintenance needs continuing to grow, it is time to direct federal investment toward preserving the system we have before adding to it. (Not only is this smart, but it’s incredibly doable: we already spend over $40 billion every year on roadways, much of which is spent on expansion.

Transportation for America believes that Congress needs to set a concrete goal of cutting the maintenance backlog in half. We can do this by prioritizing highway formula dollars for maintenance, and creating new programs and accountability measures for expansion. Let’s get a little wonky:

Prioritize highway formula dollars for maintenance

Every year, states receive over $40 billion through highway formulas. Federal law gives the states flexibility in how they spend these dollars, with maintenance being an “eligible” expense. There’s a big difference between maintenance being an “eligible” use of federal dollars, and actually prioritizing maintenance with those dollars. As we’ve outlined in the past, states are rewarded with more money for building new capacity at the expense of their repair needs. Congress should give power to the existing asset management requirements by requiring that maintenance be prioritized within the National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) and the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBG). Parallel language should be put in place for bridges. 

Check out our suggestive legislative language for achieving this. 

Create a competitive program for new highway capacity

Here’s a big idea. Rather than letting states choose whether or not to prioritize repair with their formula dollars (i.e, dollars awarded based on lane-miles, population, amount of driving), Congress should consider dedicating today’s formula funding to maintenance, and then provide a new, special pot of funds for new projects or major replacement projects that have regional or national significance—more like the way we have set up the transit program. 

In the transit capital program, transit projects have to apply for funding and demonstrate that they advance national and local goals, including environmental benefits and economic development. On top of that, project sponsors also have to prove that they have the resources to operate and maintain their new transit line or system without shortchanging the rest of their system. We don’t have any such standard for new highway projects—we don’t even ask states if they’ll be able to afford what they’re building, we just let them come back to Congress in a few years and ask for more money.  

Creating a competitive program for new highway capacity would ensure that new roads advance national and local goals and, similar to the transit program, Congress should require a plan for covering maintenance costs. It’s borderline astonishing that we allow states to build assets that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars without having to provide any plan for covering long-term maintenance costs.

This new program should cover up to 50 percent of the capital cost for the project with federal funds, just as the federal government does for new transit projects.

Improve highway performance measures

In MAP-21, the surface transportation authorization that passed in 2012 and expired in 2014, Congress made a deal with the states: They gave states far more discretion over spending in exchange for a weak, opaque system of accountability in which states are required to set targets for transportation safety, state of repair, and traffic movement. However, after seven years, those targets are very hard for the public to find. (They’re hard for US to find sometimes!) The public can’t hold their state accountable for meeting their targets if they don’t even know what they are. 

States can also set these targets however they want. It is within their discretion to spend all of their money on expansion and set a target for roadway and bridge conditions to get much, much worse. If states miss their self-set targets, there are only minor penalties imposed. 

Congress should require real accountability in the next reauthorization bill: 

  • Make performance measure targets user friendly and connect them to funding decisions. Congress should require that the Secretary make all targets public, easily searchable, and comparable across states. Currently the only targets available on FHWA’s webpage are safety targets and to find them, you have to download and decipher 55 separate, 60-page long, complicated documents. Further, USDOT should require that states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) make clear how projects prioritized for funding address national priorities and how their performance management program informed their project selection process.
  • Prioritize formula funding for repair (see #1 above). 
  • Create rewards for the states which set ambitious targets and meet them. As Repair Priorities showed, some states are doing a good job with maintaining their system, and they should be rewarded. Funding for new capacity projects should first go to states with a track record for good asset management. Competitive grant programs, except those for safety, should prioritize project sponsors with a good record for asset management.