NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Falling Down?

July 18, 2012

Fifty years ago, almost all transportation in America was paid for out of user fees, not taxes. Railroads were private and less than 6 percent of America's rail lines had been built with federal subsidies. Most urban transit systems were private, as were intercity buses. Similarly, most highways were public but had been paid for with tolls, gas taxes and other user fees, says Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute.

Today, most of America's highway infrastructure is still paid for through various user fees. The revenue that these generate has allowed the nation's roads to remain in good repair.

  • In 1990, 24 percent of America's highway bridges were considered "structurally deficient," meaning they had deteriorated enough since they were built that they could no longer support the loads for which they were designed.
  • By 2011, this figure had fallen to just 11 percent, indicating a drastic improvement in highway maintenance.
  • Additionally, according to the "roughness index" of the Department of Transportation, highways in 2009 were on average about 20 percent smoother than they were in 1989 -- a sign of improved upkeep.

The same improvements have not been seen in the United States' transit systems, particularly those serving individual metros. Despite overwhelming financial support, these transportation systems are routinely in disrepair and often request additional funds.

  • In 2010, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said that it needed $3 billion to bring the system up to a state of good repair, but was able to find only about $200 million.
  • The Chicago Transit Authority says it needs more than $16 billion to bring its system back to a state of good repair.
  • New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that it needs $16.5 billion to bring the entire system into a state of good repair.
  • In 2002, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority estimated that it needed $12.2 billion -- roughly the original cost of constructing the rail system -- to rehabilitate its rail lines.

In total, according to a 2010 report from the Federal Transit Administration, the nation's transit industry has a $78 billion backlog of work that must be done to bring transit infrastructure into a "state of good repair."

Source: Randal O'Toole, "Is U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Falling Down?" National Center for Policy Analysis, July 18, 2012.

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