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Make Local Roads a National Priority

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
April 8, 2021

Local governments are the invisible infrastructure that supports our daily lives. They are law enforcement, parks, the health department and of course our streets and roads.

Local streets and roads are the most common interface between people and their government, while government’s legitimacy is often a reflection of how well roads are maintained. We can all think of that one road near our house that never seems to get fixed, and who among us has never shaken a fist at the city for taking our tax dollars and never filling that one pothole? Local governments are the infrastructure we use to navigate our daily lives, often oblivious to the engineering and effort that have gone into making sure we get where we intend to go. But that pothole we drive over every day slowly eats away at the legitimacy we have invested in our government.

And these potholes, alligatoring and other roadway failures are common in the United States: the American Society of Civil Engineers (ACSE) recently gave our roads a D grade for their overall condition. In fact according to their 2021 report 43% of our public roads are in poor or mediocre condition, with the vast majority of poor conditions found on urban and rural collectors. This isn’t from lack of attention from local governments; it’s the result of the paucity of funding devoted to such projects. Due to a network of federal and state requirements, local priority is often secondary to accomplishing broader state and national goals. Transportation infrastructure finance is the essence of coercive federalism.

While we mostly understand that taxes pay for government services, the mechanics of delivering a capital project like a road—from grant application to the first shovel in the ground—are occult and confusing. For example, there are a host of federal and state programs to build and sometimes repair certain local roads. The qualifying projects reflect state and federal priorities and locals are left to themselves to find a way to pay for the roads they want. While there are options for local governments to finance critical infrastructure like roads, levying them against taxpayers is often fraught.

Nevertheless local gas taxes, vehicle license fees and even property assessments often are used to directly fund local resources. By some measures they can be wildly successful: according to one study 71% of local transportation tax measures have passed since 2000. The issue is that this still isn’t enough.

Even with all this success, our local roads continue to fail us because our local maintenance programs remain chronically underfunded. According to the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card we would need to increase our funding levels by 29% to address current and future maintenance backlogs—estimated to be around $435 billion. This is not building new roads and highways; it is just repairing what we already have. This backlog is one of the motivations behind the Biden-Harris administration’s American Jobs Plan, which calls for direct investments in critical infrastructure like roads and bridges.

This is a great start, but Congress needs to reckon with the fact that federal guidelines generally restrict direct allocations to local jurisdictions from discretionary road projects. One of the most flexible sources of road funding is the Surface Transportation Block Grant program (STBG), which funnels federal gas tax monies to local governments for local projects. Under this program local, regional and state governments are eligible for a host of projects to improve conditions and multimodal performance on local streets and roads. Money from this federal program can be used for anything from a school bicycle safety program to resurfacing federal aid routes—which is great because it provides maximum flexibility to local governments to solve their unique problems.

But because of the competitive nature of such broad funding eligibility, it depends on policymakers to allocate funding to road projects rather than some other critical need. Roads compete with programs for schoolchildren, bike lanes and crosswalks, making the political calculus for such investments challenging. Additionally, the funding guidelines for STBG restrict the sorts of eligible roads to designated federal aid routes, limiting direct local allocations. By removing this requirement, the federal government could open opportunities for local governments to address their unique road maintenance needs.

And while transportation planners across the United States are enthusiastic about what the American Jobs Plan represents, lawmaking still needs to occur in a divided Congress. While there is some indication that this optimism is warranted, provisions protecting money for local streets and roads need to become law. Having a new, federal funding source allocated to maintenance projects would be transformative.

The goal should be to insure that the monies be used for maintenance—no new starts; or grants could be tied to individual roads’ pavement condition index, which is a commonly-used score card for road conditions. Local infrastructure is ultimately national infrastructure, and with the myriad issues facing local governments a new local grant program would be impactful. By tying new federal monies to maintenance, the currently insurmountable problem of deferred maintenance on our local streets and roads could be . . . at least somewhat ameliorated.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA is a public policy analyst with more than a decade of experience in local government. He has a particular interest in transportation and telecommunications policy and delivering infrastructure projects.

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