America’s roads are a lot less congested, due to coronavirus shutdowns that have kept millions of commuters, shoppers and vacationers parked at their homes.
While that makes it easier to patch potholes, it also could spell trouble for road and bridge projects. The longer motorists remain off the roads, the harder it will be for states to afford repairs in the months and years ahead.
Reduced traffic volumes are expected to cause a sharp drop in state revenue from fuel taxes, tolls and other user fees that could force delays for thousands of projects nationwide unless the federal government intervenes.
“This is a critical need at the national level,” said Patrick McKenna, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and director of Missouri’s transportation department.
Leaders of state transportation agencies have asked Congress for an immediate $50 billion to prevent major cuts to road and bridge projects over the next year and a half. As an economic stimulus, they also want Congress to authorize a long-term plan that doubles the amount of regular funding going to state transportation agencies.
The request comes as a majority of Americans are under government orders to remain home to try to slow the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. For many, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as a fever or cough. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can lead to more severe illnesses and death.
A $2 trillion federal stimulus package enacted last month included billions for public transit systems, publicly owned commercial airports and Amtrak passenger train service — all of which have seen sharp declines in customers as a result of the coronavirus. But it earmarked nothing for state highways and bridges.
Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic House leaders have expressed support for a big infrastructure spending plan as part of another economic stimulus bill. But similar pronouncements in previous years have failed to produce results.
In the meantime, some road and bridge projects already have been put on hold.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation has slashed its expected construction projects from 131 down to 38 for the upcoming budget year, a $2 billion reduction.
Ohio has delayed projects until next year on interstate highways in Columbus and Cincinnati because of the expected decline in fuel tax revenue.
Faced with a budget shortfall, Missouri has postponed $46 million for 18 road and bridge projects that had been priorities for local governments. As many as 299 additional projects valued at $785 million could be at risk without federal help, McKenna said.
Among the immediate deferments: a new highway interchange to provide direct access to the expanded Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains. The center’s hospital, physician and specialty clinics are among the area’s largest employers, serving about 40,000 patients in eight rural counties of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
The state had allotted more than $1.2 million to cover half the road construction costs. The other half was to come from local transportation sales tax revenue, which also is down.
“We were hoping to bid it out for construction very soon, but then COVID-19 and all that, so that timeline is kind of in the air,” said West Plains Administrator Tom Stehn, a former state highway engineer. “It was a high priority for us.”
Though ambulances are running as usual and detours are well-marked for visitors, “obviously that direct interchange would be nice,” said Daniel Marshall, chief clinical officer for the South Howell County Ambulance District.