Among the many effects of the coronavirus pandemic response is how urban traffic is down sharply. That makes road repairs easier now – but future use and funding are in doubt.
The Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis reported on April 16, 2020 that the shelter-in-place order in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an important benefit: the state is saving $40 million per day because of 15,000 fewer collisions per month on the state’s roads and highways. Concurrently, 6,000 people per month aren’t being injured or killed in accidents since the state issued its lockdown orders on March 20.
How has this affected other states? And how might it translate into spring and summer pavement repairs?
The response to the pandemic has largely occurred on a state-by-state basis, making it difficult to assess the national effects. But for the most part, states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California have continued making pothole repairs because they fall under the umbrella of “necessary infrastructure.” Some – not all – asphalt plants are open, traffic is much lighter, so in some respects it’s an opportunity to make pavement improvements that are typically needed this time of year – faster and with greater efficiency.
The greater problems with infrastructure maintenance and improvements might lie ahead. This work could go underfunded in the very near future due to reduced gas tax revenues. Some points to consider:
• ConsumerReports.org also reports that roads are safer overall elsewhere, with collisions in New York City down by 38 percent as of the end of March; injuries were also down, by 32 percent. Interestingly, bike accident injuries were UP by 2.7 percent, mirroring increased use of bicycles, which is not surprising given peoples’ reluctance to use public transportation in the face of the pandemic (public transportation revenues have plummeted across the board; $25 billion from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package is designated to make up for revenue losses from Covid 19-related low ridership).
• The Raleigh News & Observer reported (4/2/2020), “with businesses closed and people staying home, North Carolinians are driving less, depriving the state of tens of millions of dollars in fuel taxes used to build and maintain roads.” The state’s head of its department of transportation says that revenues were cut by about one-third, an expected loss of $200 million by July 1. About 54% of the NCDOT annual budget is from gas taxes.
• The Tax Foundation, an independent, global tax policy nonprofit, reported on March 31 that stay-at-home orders led to decreased personal traffic nationwide by 44 percent in one month’s time. Long-haul trucking was down by only 3 percent, but short-haul trucking was down 14 percent.
• The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) anticipates a 30 percent drop in national gas tax revenues, a number modeled in part from data in the 2008-2009 recession.
With depleted revenues, it’s hard to see how 2020 will be a banner year for improving roads, bridges, highway exchanges and the like. Pothole repairs appear to be more likely than wholesale repaving.
A check-in with asphalt plants around the US suggests a mixed bag on the supply side, as some are open while others are not. In most cases, the safety of workers is cited, either as a reason for being shuttered or to explain how they are operating – with new protocols that stress social distancing of workers, facility sanitizing, and other containment strategies.
Of note, the National Asphalt Pavement Association has published an online resource to the industry on safety measures and other resources for pavement repair and construction during the pandemic, found here.