Highways Get No Respect

Huge pent up demand for highway spending may be met by a new push to boost user payments for traveling down the road.

Our Highways Need Massive Upgrade

  • Getting our highways and concrete byways upgraded will take close to $1 trillion to $2 trillion.
  • Our highways need a massive infusion of funds if our economy and lifestyle is to keep up with the rest of the world.
  • Much of the more than $400 billion a year spent on infrastructure – transportation, water, waste, etc. – comes from taxpayer dollars.

Highways are neglected. They are underappreciated.

And they are underfunded – big time.

Many of our most important roadways are well past their 50-year anticipated life – just as we are getting ready to ask them to do the hitherto imaginable.
Getting are blacktop and concrete byways upgraded to where they need to be will take close to $1 trillion to $2 trillion.

Our highways also represent a big idea on the future of infrastructure spending in America – with a massive infusion now required if our economy and lifestyle is to keep up with the rest of the world, many experts say.

Much of the more than $400 billion a year spent on infrastructure of all sorts – transportation, water, waste – of late comes from government – meaning taxes – paid by us all.

But highway proponents believe now it the time to pivot and pay for future infrastructure in a new way. Users – drivers – must pay directly.

“Highways are networked utilities but they are not organized like utilities.”


So says one of the nation’s top thought leaders about our transport arterials, Robert W. Poole, Jr., director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. Credit: Marty Rosenberg

Constructing the highways of the early to mid-21st century will require a massive undertaking and raise significant employment questions.

With the U.S. economy close to full employment, who will be building our future highways? Poole asked.

We need to be thinking about our immigration policies – red hot politically these days – with that in mind, Poole suggested.

“The economy only grows if you have productivity increases,” he said.

Highways will become increasingly important to us and their use will increase as we move toward autonomous vehicles, Poole told Icons of Infrastructure last week in an exclusive interview at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association Annual P3s in Transportation Conference here.

For starters, we need to think of highways as utilities, said Poole, who has just authored a book, “Rethinking America’s Highways.”

“Highways are networked utilities but they are not organized like utilities,” he said. That is why they are plagued by “underinvestment” and “misdirected investment,” he added.

We get by on the cheap, reluctant to see our gasoline taxes increased to pay for needed construction.

“Imagine if our cell phone businesses ran in that way,” Poole said.

“I’ve studied this for 30 years. The incentives are all wrong.”

Politicians are wary about adjusting gas taxes upward. And consumption of gasoline is being curbed by much more efficient, lightweight vehicles.

At the same time, there are “chronic problems in maintenance,” Poole said.

We need a massive shift in our approach to funding highways – and we need to start paying for them based on use. Increased reliance on toll lanes are a necessary first step. Ultimately, sophisticated GPS tracking will enable every motorist to get a precisely calibrated monthly bill based on the amount of highway driving they do, Poole said.

The mass deployment of autonomous, self-driving vehicles subject to backup human control will take 20 to 25 years to transpire, Poole said. “The time frame is moving further into the future.”

While autonomous vehicles will be able to drive about more closely that today – safely – that will not mitigate the need for more highways. That is because many more people – including young people, the elderly and disabled will become more mobile – driving about more, Poole said.

“If anything, we are going to need more highways, not less,” he said, as “vehicle miles traveled” explodes.

While national governments may lack resources for major infrastructure projects, new strategies to tap private funds are being explored, particularly outside the United States. More than 150 medium and large airports have been privatized, paving the way for U.S. pension funds to plow assets into the new investments, Poole said.

“Forty-five percent of all airlines passengers in Europe to to airports that are partly or completely privatized,” Poole said.

Always all U.S. highways are owned by the state. “You cannot buy equity in roads,” Poole said.

But new approaches to highway funding are beginning to emerge.

Indiana has let out a 75-year lease on a major toll road that generated $3.6 billion in funds the state used for a 10-year highway improvement effort, Poole said.

Ultimately, our relationship with our roads must change.

“People have no idea what they pay for highway,” Poole said.

A recent study calculated that the American consumer spends just $44 a month for highway fuel taxes and related fees. That sum is “pitiful” compared to what she or he pays for other utilities each month, Poole said.

Even more importantly – we need to have a deeper appreciation of highways.

“We need a customer – provider relationship we don’t have today,” Poole said.

In other words, we need to show our highways some love…

Some respect.

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