We’ve altered our daily routines for months now. Pre-pandemic, we hopped on the bus or metro to get to the office, or an airplane for a quick work trip. Now, many of us are working from home, abiding by local health departments’ social distancing guidelines. We canceled our summer travel, and we haven’t been on the roads as much, which means less money on gas. What a relief, right?
Not so much for our county roads, city streets, and state bridges and highways, which largely rely on fuel tax revenue for operations maintenance, and upgrades. Across the nation, 17 states and 25 localities have been forced to cancel or delay transportation projects, estimating $10.9 billion, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). Projections continue to show decreases in state motor fuel tax and toll receipts as nationwide vehicle traffic reduction bottomed out at about 50% during the height of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has forced states to delay or cancel large-scale construction projects, in addition to state departments of transportation (DOT) potentially laying off transportation workers due to a lack of revenue for normal operations. State DOTs are unable to generate the revenue needed to operate and maintain their transportation systems adequately, on which we rely daily. While we’re pleased Congress passed a continuing resolution which ensures surface transportation programs do not lapse as they finalize a multi-year reauthorization bill, the extension does not address vital emergency relief for state DOTs. This emergency relief is critical to prevent further project delays and cancellation.
This pandemic doesn’t discriminate across state or party lines. Every state is facing revenue challenges, including routine state DOT operations like plowing snow, maintaining truck stops, and incident response. Some states have stopped all construction activities or are reducing the delivery rates on active projects to preserve cash flow.
According to ARTBA, in Texas, revenues are expected to be down $527 million in FY 2020 and $2.2 billion in FY 2021. Ridership on Houston Metro dropped 55% in March, despite Harris County’s delays in issuing a stay-at-home order. Canceled construction projects are causing permanent layoffs private sectors, while hundreds of jobs in transportation have been shed during this economic fallout.
Washington state has experienced a 45% drop in traffic, and 75% decreases in in ferry and transit ridership. Washington DOT (WSDOT) revenue losses affects improvements to highways, ferries, rail, traffic, facilities and programmed projects—including maintenance work like snow and ice removal. WSDOT made efforts to preserve funds, such as reducing State Ferry and Amtrak Cascades service, but this isn’t enough to make up for the anticipated revenue shortfall.
Reports from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) indicate a $269.9 million cut from their FY 2021 budget. As part of this massive cut, there would be a $95.6 million reduce in capital maintenance work, $48 million in routine maintenance, and $97 million in half a dozen projects will be delayed.
States are hurting. Our ability to provide a match for federal funds will continue to be strained and further impact available federal financing opportunities if we go at this alone.
State DOTs have asked Congress for at least $37 billion in emergency relief, an investment that will backstop projected revenue shortfalls and ensure our infrastructure deficit does not continue to grow. This backstop will meet the moment and keep our economy and the American people moving.
Our nation is already facing an investment gap of $1.5 trillion from 2020 through 2039 for our roads and bridges, according to new data released by American Society of Civil Engineers. And this doesn’t even take into account COVID-19 revenue losses. While the immediate economic impact and potential job losses are continuing to unfold, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that each $1 billion in transportation construction investment supports an average of 13,000 jobs throughout all sectors of the economy.
Delaying action means American businesses will continue to see a decline in productivity and more jobs will be lost. Add a global pandemic on top of it, and the outlook looks very bleak—unless Congress steps up to the plate.
Congress must take bipartisan steps to prevent major disruptions to the lifeblood of our economy –our transportation systems—during and after this public health emergency. They must ensure significant emergency relief is in future COVID-19-related legislation to prevent delays and cancellations of critical infrastructure projects, as well as job losses in state DOTs and the private sector with whom we contract.
If we do nothing? Our nation’s infrastructure deficit will continue to grow, hampering economic recovery efforts and negatively impacting the quality of life for each American.
Carol Haddock, P.E., MPA, M.ASCE is the Director of the Houston, TX. Department of Public Works and is a member of the ASCE Board of Direction.
Roger M. Millar Jr., P.E., AICP, F.ASCE is the Secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation and a member of the ASCE Board of Direction.