The 2021 US infrastructure bill leapt closer to becoming law in August with a strong vote of support from the Senate. So what might it mean for pothole repair?
The obvious benefit of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (a working title) is in how much will be dedicated to fixing roads and bridges. While a version of the bill has yet to be voted on in the House, and after that get through the reconciliation process – and once passed, then go through specific allocations as determined by the Federal Highway Administration and other divisions of the Department of Transportation – there are indicators that a substantial amount of funds will go to fixing existing pavement.
You read that right – Congress is dealing with potholes. According to reporting in The New York Times (“Roads in the infrastructure bill: Billions for repair, maintenance and safety,” August 2, 2021), there is a substantial (if not fully adequate) infusion of money going into pavement repair:
“Pouring billions of dollars toward an expansive backlog of needed repairs across the country, and shoring up the nation’s highways and infrastructure to withstand the toll of climate change … the legislation … includes about $110 billion in new federal funding for roads, bridges and other projects … the program authorizes the largest amount of funding for surface transportation programs.”
Fix the roads we have
The Biden Administration, by way of Secretary of Transportation and the bill’s chief spokesperson Pete Buttigieg, has previously committed to a plan that prioritizes repairing existing infrastructure.
“Fix it first, I think, is going to be a very important mantra for us,” the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana told a conference of urban leaders in March, 2021. “You look at the conditions of so many of our roads and bridges as a country, and it’s just clear that we can’t allow that backlog to continue.”
The New York Times article points out that this still falls short of the backlog of bridges and roads, as assessed by the American Society of Civil Engineers, who say that $786 billion is what’s needed for just repair, before any new construction takes place.
But something beats nothing, right?
No gas, no gas tax…
Separately, something else in the as-yet-not-final package might play a bigger role in funding highway repairs going forward. It is EV (electric vehicle) charging stations. Buttigieg has been aggressively selling the broad concept of 500,000 EV charging stations nationwide. Additionally, Democratic House members are debating whether federal support of electric vehicles, such as those used by postal carriers, and the charging stations to support them, should get $7.5 billion in funding – or a much larger $85 billion package to support a much larger initiative that could bolster public electric utilities’ capacity to support the massive transition to EVs.
The private sector automotive manufacturers seem largely supportive of this general direction. This includes the Ford Motor Company, which has pledged to build EV versions of its insanely popular F-150 pickup trucks by 2025. General Motors has pledged to have 30 EV models on the market by 2025, while Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, and Hyundai have all pledged billions in development to build and sell EV models between 2025 and 2030.
Clearly, the trending toward EVs upsets the primary revenue stream – gas taxes – to the Highway Trust Fund, which currently stands at 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline (and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel). The HTF has been in place since 1956, providing funds that are designated for surface transportation building and repair as well as for mass transit projects. Frozen at 18.4 cents/gallon since 1992, the fund has failed to keep up with inflation. Now, with higher fuel efficiency and the advent of no-gas EVs, it is falling further behind and requires Congressionally authorized allocations from general funds to remain solvent.
This push toward a massive migration to electric-powered vehicles can only force a rethinking of funding in the long term. The wear and tear from vehicles on pavement – a large part of which is responsible for pothole creation – is unchanged by EVs.
In fact, until batteries become smaller and lighter, EVs put more stress on asphalt than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.
States have already begun to experiment with user fees to make EV motorists bear their fair share of highway maintenance and construction. Academic calculations find the price of those user fees, implemented as a yearly surcharge, should be in the range of $150-$200 (approximately 550 times the current gas tax per gallon, which varies by state when accounting for additional state gas taxes). See here for more on a comprehensive study of this issue conducted by Jennifer Ricciuti at LaSalle University (“Impact of Lost Gas Tax Revenue Due to Sale of Electric Vehicles: Analysis and Recommendations for the 50 States,” 2020).
There remains a lot to be determined, and a lot of innovation in both legislation and the EV technologies themselves, for all of this to become actualized. But the energy, knowhow and leadership, in private and public sectors, are there to make it happen – because the times, they are a-changing.