Improving the country’s infrastructure will likely be high on the agenda of the incoming administration and Congress. To accomplish this goal, federal spending should strongly favor repairing and maintaining existing roads, highways and bridges, not building new ones. That’s because as much as 20% of the nation’s major roads are in poor condition, and tens of thousands of the country’s bridges are structurally deficient. Fixing them will yield the best return for the taxpayer dollar.
- Spending on new or expanded highways is already showing lower economic returns than maintenance. In the past, traffic engineers could use projections of population and job growth to extrapolate the need for new or expanded highways. But two developments may render such projections increasingly unreliable.
- The first development is self-driving cars. Companies like Google and Uber are already testing autonomous vehicles on public streets in cities such as Pittsburgh. The timing and spread of this technology is uncertain, but many researchers and experts expect the shift to autonomous vehicles to have dramatic and unpredictable effects on, for example, traffic congestion.
- The second development is the possibility that the U.S. may reach what some analysts refer to as “peak car.” The long-term trend in traffic growth, on both a total and per-capita level, underwent an unprecedented reversal in 2007, with several years of actual decline. This included nine straight years of declining per-capita travel. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT), total and per capita, has begun to grow again, but some researchers believe that the U.S. may be at or near the end of the era of per-capita traffic growth.
Both these developments make it increasingly uncertain as to how much new road and highway capacity the U.S. will need in the future—or even what kind of roads the country will need. Policymakers need to keep this uncertainty front and center.