Washington Insight

New report to Congress shows transportation investment short of meeting total needs

Jim Fahey
Director of Government Relations
APWA Washington Office

More than two years after the passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), indications are that while the law’s record level of federal funding is helping reduce the size of a nationwide transportation investment gap, it still appears insufficient to close it completely. TEA-21 provided a 40 percent funding increase over its predecessor, ISTEA. But according to information contained in a new report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, investment requirements needed to maintain the physical condition of highways, bridges, and transit systems will still exceed total spending levels during the life of the law.

Drawing on 1997 data provided by states, local governments, and transit operators, the report, titled 1999 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges and Transit: Conditions and Performance, which is one in a series of reports issued to Congress every two years, provides an analysis of highway, bridge, and transit finance, conditions, performance and future investment requirements. Often referred to as the biennial report, it is an important resource for legislators, policymakers, news media, and transportation analysts.

On the subject of investment requirements, the biennial report found that capital spending by all levels of government would need to increase by 16.3 percent over 1997 levels to maintain the physical condition of the nation’s highways and bridges. TEA-21’s higher investment levels are expected to reduce the needed increase significantly, but will still leave a required increase of 5.7 percent through its six-year authorization period ending 2003. As for the nation’s transit systems, the study calculated that capital spending would need to increase by 41 percent over 1997 levels in order to maintain physical conditions. Again, TEA-21 is projected to reduce the gap substantially but will leave a 12.9 percent required increase to maintain physical conditions.

As to be expected, the percentages are significantly greater when determining investment levels needed for improvements. Using different criteria for highways and transit, the biennial report found that to improve conditions would necessitate an increase of 92.9 percent in capital spending for highways and bridges and 110.2 percent for transit systems.

The report notes that public investment in surface transportation programs is at its highest level ever. Combined federal, state, and local spending for highway and bridge capital and maintenance totaled $101.3 billion in 1997, up by 8.5 percent from 1995. The federal government share of the capital outlay side in 1997 for the highway mode was 41.1 percent, though down from 44.5 percent in 1995. For transit systems, all levels of government spent $25.1 billion in 1997, an increase of 5.5 percent from 1995. The federal government provided 54 percent of total capital expenditures, a slight increase over the 1995 level.

Other highlights the report notes include:

The highway fatality rate has fallen from 25.9 per 100,000 population in 1966 to 15.7 per 100,000 population in 1997. During that period licensed drivers grew by nearly 80 percent and automobile travel grew by 177 percent.

With vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increasing on every functional system, usage trends reinforce the dominance of travel in urban areas. From 1995 to 1997, however, rural VMT growth outpaced urban highway VMT growth at 7.2 percent as opposed to 4.1 percent in contrast to a 10-year trend in favor of urban travel growth.

After declining slightly between 1987 and 1993, passenger travel on public transit showed renewed growth between 1993 and 1997, as rail passenger miles increased by 18.3 percent and non-rail passenger miles increased by 3.8 percent.

Overall, highway system conditions as measured by pavement condition, ride quality, alignment adequacy, and bridge ratings are improving, although they fluctuate by location and functional class.

Travel density, one measure of congestion, clearly shows increasing density, in travel per lane mile. A traditional measure of congestion, the volume/capacity ratio, during the peak travel period has remained at about the same value in urban areas for the past decade.

If average annual highway investment remains at the 1997 level in constant dollars over the next 20 years, urban VMT would be expected to grow at an average annual rate between 1.78 percent and 1.83 percent. Rural VMT would be expected to grow at an average annual rate of between 2.68 percent and 2.72 percent.

Barriers to mobility persist for people with disabilities, the elderly, low-income households, recent immigrants, and people of color.

Copies of the report can be obtained by calling 1-800-240-5674, or in the Washington, D.C. area, 202-366-9899. The report is also available on the web: www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/1999cpr/. The U.S Department of Transportation plans to submit the next report, which will rely on 1999 data, by June 2001.