Report highlights need to increase federal fuel tax to fix deteriorating interstate highways

December 10, 2018

Land Line Staff


Interstate highways and other infrastructure in the United States is deteriorating, and the best way to fund projects in the near-term is to increase the federal fuel tax. That assessment comes from a congressionally mandated report recently released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The report also recommends controversial funding mechanisms, including lifting the federal toll ban and per-mile charges.

On Thursday, Dec. 6, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report titled “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System.” Inside the report, an expert committee details the current condition of the U.S. infrastructure and projected future conditions. Without a significant increase in funding, the future looks bleak.

In the report, the committee notes how most segments of the interstate highway system “are decades old, subject to much heavier traffic than anticipated, and operating well beyond their design life without having undergone major upgrades or reconstruction.” Even accounting for modest projections, the highway system is ill-equipped to handle traffic growth.

Restricting its time horizon to the next 20 years for estimating investment needs, the report recommends that Congress increase the federal fuel tax and adjust the tax as needed to account for inflation and changes in the vehicle fuel economy.

Another recommendation includes Congress passing an Interstate Highway System Renewal and Modernization Program (RAMP). Among the provisions would be assurances that the federal share of spending is similar to the current 90 percent share. RAMP also would commit the federal government to support projects from start to finish.

However, the report recommends that Congress prepare for employing new federal and state funding mechanism as the vehicle fleet and energy sources evolve. The committee suggests the imposition of tolls or a vehicles miles traveled tax. Supporting its call for more tolls, the report recommends lifting the ban on tolling of existing general-purpose interstate highways.

According to the report, combined state and federal spending on interstates has been $20 billion to $25 billion each year. Models predict that current spending amounts are too low by at least 50 percent. That prediction only accounts for rebuilding aging infrastructure. An additional $30 billion per year will be required over the next two decades to keep up with regular repairs. Essentially, spending will need to be increased $45 billion to $70 billion annually.

Long-term issues were also discussed. Addressing the disruptive nature of new vehicle technologies, the report recommends that governments and stakeholders begin planning the transition to more automated and connected vehicle operations. Relative to the 20-year time frame of the recommendations, the committee acknowledged that vehicle automation is expected to remain in the early stages and have limited effects on interstate travel during that time.

Climate change also played a role in the analysis. The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration “assess the vulnerability of the interstate highway system to the effects of climate change and extreme weather” and to “develop standards, in conjunction with states, for incorporating cost-effective resilience enhancements into projects.”

Furthermore, the committee suggests that Congress direct the U.S. DOT and FHWA to determine the interstate highway system’s contribution to the country’s emission of greenhouse gases and recommend options for reducing the contribution in conjunction with reductions in other emissions of pollutants.

“Unless a commitment is made soon to remedying the system’s deficiencies and to preparing it for the challenges that lie ahead, there is a very real risk that the system will become increasingly congested; far more costly to operate, maintain, and repair; less safe; incompatible with evolving technology; and vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate and extreme weather,” the reports states. “The consequences from these deficiencies will spill over into all the passenger and freight modes that complement and connect to the system.”

The report was mandated in a provision within the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015. Congress asked the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to conduct a study of the actions needed to upgrade and restore the interstate highway system to fulfill its role as a crucial national asset, serving the needs of people, cities and towns, businesses, and the military while remaining the safest highway network in the country.


Another article on highway funding: Are highway expansions multibillion dollar boondoggle projects?