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Life is a highway

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Highway contruction in Texas Photo courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration

Earlier today, The New York Times began its article on the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) infrastructure report with this less-than-cheery thought: “The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling a little bit less.”

That’s the summary of ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, its first since 2009.  In 2009, ASCE gave the nation a “D” for the way in which it was handling infrastructure issues.  The new report, released today, has better news — sort of: The grade has moved up to a D+, the first time in 15 years that the grade has improved.

The report and an interactive analysis of all 50 states can both be downloaded at

The report shows progress in six areas, including bridges, rail, waste water and drinking water. No category saw a lower grade, though inland ports, waterways and levees received a D-.

Political leaders of both parties generally agree that building and repairing our roads and bridges is a good long-term investment.  The debate typically occurs over three issues:

  1. How to pay for improvements,

  2. How to determine which projects are most worthy, and

  3. How to deliver these projects in a reasonable time.

Today, while the federal government spends $70 billion per year on our highway system, roads are almost exclusively owned by state and local governments.  Even our interstate highway system, built with 90 percent of the funds coming from the federal budget, is owned by the respective states.

So it is appropriate that governors and legislatures take the lead in figuring out how to finance road and bridge projects that will fill the $550 billion gap between our current condition and what the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to have a safe and functional highway system.

Recently, Virginia and Wyoming have revamped their laws to provide additional revenue for highway improvements.   Other state legislatures continue to wrestle with highway financing and how to expand it, possibly by attracting greater private investment.

Money isn’t the whole answer, though.  We need to have the right mechanisms so that the most cost-effective projects are advanced (funding bridges to nowhere is in no one’s interest) and we need to find a way to deliver good projects expeditiously.  Laws that rightfully protect the environment and communities from negative impacts should not be used to drag out the delivery times for projects that embody the best in social and environmental responsibility.

A well-functioning highway system supports a strong economy and a strong economy supports social wellbeing and environmental health.   Most Americans recognize these connections and support getting there without delay.

If there’s any consolation to be had, it is that the issues we grapple with are hardly new. In 1632, the Jamestown colony debated how to assure adequate roads and passed America’s first road law, one that required each man in the colony to put in a certain number of days per year on road improvements. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both saw a great need for roads and other “internal improvements” but questioned the federal government’s authority to finance them.

Fred Skaer, Senior Advisor

Fred served as Director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Project Development and Environmental Review.  He also served as staff director of the federal Interagency Task Force on Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Review, which advised the Secretary of Transportation on infrastructure projects.

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