Sober Non-Partisan Analysis: America Wastes a Ton of Money on Highways

Photo: Dhanix/Wikipedia

A good deal of the $46 billion the federal government pours into highway spending each year is going to waste, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report [PDF].

The conclusion won’t surprise regular Streetsblog readers, but it’s the source that’s interesting. The CBO is not an advocacy group or an ideologically-minded think tank. It’s a non-partisan budget watchdog charged with evaluating federal spending decisions, and it says federal highway funding is not well-spent.

For one, the CBO thinks too much is spent on road expansion and too little on maintenance. The construction of the Interstate Highway System made freight shipping and traveling between cities much more efficient, the report says, but since the system was completed in the 1970s spending on highways has been subject to diminishing returns. Current spending “has not shifted” to account for “the importance of maintaining existing capacity,” the CBO writes.

Compounding the problem is induced demand. The CBO points to a recent study finding that “the addition of new lanes is likely to have little effect on congestion within 10 years” as highway lanes fill with new drivers.

In addition, what the U.S. does spend on maintenance flows disproportionally to lesser-used rural highways and not the urban interstates that carry the overwhelming majority of traffic, the CBO says. Urban interstates are in fact the only category of roads receiving federal highway funds where pavement quality is actually degrading.

Not all of the CBO’s ideas about road spending are good for cities (the report recommends spending more on expanding urban interstates), but it emphasizes some policy changes that would result in big savings and smarter decisions, including more widespread use of road pricing.

Putting a price on roads could be an alternative to expensive highway widening projects, the CBO writes. For example, congestion pricing could encourage drivers on less time-sensitive trips to avoid using highways during rush hours, lessening the pressure to expand roads.

Current federal law sharply restricts what transportation agencies can charge on existing interstate highways, and “only about 7 percent of the Interstate System is composed of highways with tolls,” the CBO reports. Loosening these restrictions could help America avoid wasting billions of dollars a year on highway expansions.

  • BWTrainer

    Report also points out rural areas receive a far greater share of money relative to traffic volume than urban areas.

  • HamTech87

    Please, no more money for urban highways. They’re already sucking the lifeblood from our communities.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    $48 Billion would build nearly 100,000 miles of protected bike Lanes

  • Kevin M

    Or to put it another way, almost 2,000 miles of PBLs in EACH of the top 50 MSAs. That’s all the way down to the Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls MSA…

  • SD70MACMAN

    Or fund most major rail transit projects in the US.

  • SD70MACMAN

    Money on beautification, noise walls, and rebuilding severed connections (small neighborhood bridges and WIDE crossings for people walking and biking) would be great transportation investments to make on urban highways.

  • BWTrainer

    Oh yeah, not saying we need to add tons of capacity. But that money could go a long way towards things like SD says, or repairing structurally deficient bridges, etc.

  • SFnative74

    If the US, like countries advanced in rational infrastructure decision-making processes, would include externalities and future maintenance costs into its transportation discussions and capital plans, we would naturally avoid these short-sighted projects that paint us into a fiscal and quality-of-life corner.

  • John Riecke

    Lol, Colorado is about to blow 35 years’ worth of bridge maintenance on a teo mile stretch of I-70 through Denver

  • Kevin Love

    In countries that care about the quality of life for human beings, that is precisely what they do. Take a look at the Dutch town of Goes, population 37,000 at:

    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/goes-cycling-city-of-the-netherlands/

  • Alexander Vucelic

    ripping them out entirely would make a better Investment

  • Dexter

    New York City could use another 100 miles of subway and 48 Billion could pay for a third of them.

  • sojourner_7

    Such a splinter group of narrow minded comments. Diversity. Perspective. Context. Induced demand relates to traffic usage, but does not define it. The need for more maintenance of existing roads is doe to fuel tax revenue being spent elsewhere. All the yak about subsidized public roads, but fuel taxes get diverted. Go figure.

  • Jason

    I’ve been saying this for a while now with the seeming American obsession with maximizing farebox recovery. Nobody would talk about a road’s balance sheet that way, as a completely isolated balance sheet. Roads enable other taxable activity that help justify their existence. Let’s look at an extreme example: if we “saved” money on road maintenance costs by tearing out every single road in this country, how much revenue would be lost from things like sales taxes? Corporate taxes? Etc. I don’t have any numbers handy but I’d assume it’s a net loss once you account for that.

    Plus there’s just the fact that we recognize that the ability to get around is simply a public good.

    But transit? People start losing their minds about subsidizing it. I wonder how much the lack of understanding that roads are subsidized too is an issue of the myth of gas taxes and tolls covering the cost of roads aiding this discrepancy in thinking, a post hoc rationalization, a bit of both combining into a feedback loop, or what.

  • SFnative74

    It’s apparently the same mindset that accepts a politician’s hawk-ness to go to war at a taxpayer cost of billions of dollars a year yet freaks out at a politician’s proposal to spend similar or lesser amounts a year on a program that helps Americans. There is some serious brain farting going on in the heads of too many Americans. It all goes to terrible education…which is horribly underfunded compared to First World Countries. Surprise!

  • neroden

    Here in the US we consider our politicians to be mostly corrupt psychos who redistribute tax funding to their buddies, which perhaps explains the desire to make as many projects as possible *not dependent on those politicians*.

    I can’t explain the people who don’t understand that roads are *heavily* subsidized, though; they’re just gullible fools.

  • neroden

    Widening it to an insane 10 lanes to destroy the neighborhood, in fact.

  • neroden

    $40 billion in general-fund subsidies from the *federal government alone* for roads in the last decade. This is more than the amount of fuel tax used for everything other than roads in *several* decades.

    And then there’s the much, much larger state and local road subsidies, coming out of income tax and sales tax and property tax. Much, MUCH larger than the federal subsidies.

    Basically the gas tax doesn’t pay for very much at all. This is what you get when you don’t raise it (not even to adjust for inflation) for decades.

  • sojourner_7

    Don’t stop with that selective logic, be accurate. Everything subsidized by the government is funded by taxpayers, as we collectively subsidize the government.

  • dr2chase

    Fuel taxes too low is a much larger problem than fuel taxes diverted.

    https://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/weve-been-subsidizing-driving-for-years/

  • sojourner_7

    With a personal blog, you can make up your own facts, things are easier that way!! There are more vehicles on the road than there were, thus gas tax increases even if rate stayed the same.

  • dr2chase

    Not my own facts, you clueless bobblehead: “The image links to the spreadsheet containing all data and links to documents from which it was obtained; these are all government sources, either EIA, FHWA, or Federal Reserve.”

    It’s all there if you care to look. Put mouse/finger/stylus on the graph, you will get a .xls spreadsheet, which at least on an Android tablet opened in Google Sheets with everything where I expected it to be, including links to government sources that were valid when I wrote it.

  • sojourner_7

    Correct, I don’t care to look. You have an obvious personal agenda. Have fun with that, and your snark persona.

  • J the Rake

    Sheesh. Flunked statistics and dropped econ. Vehicle ownership is the one and only cause that changes gas tax revenue. Brilliant.

  • J the Rake

    Their mind is made up. Wrong. But made up and far be it from facts to get in the way.

  • neroden

    So you agree that the huge amount of money required to maintain existing roads (mostly coming from income tax money, sales tax money, or borrowing) has nothing to do with the gas tax? Good.

    That huge amount of money is, in fact, just because we have too damn many roads. We need fewer, smaller roads.

    So you’re going to retract your original comment, right? (Didn’t think so…)

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