Unpacking Pete Buttigieg’s 21st Century Infrastructure Plan for Highways and Bridges

On Friday, presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled his infrastructure plan: “Building for the 21st Century.” Most media outlets pointed to the overall highlights, but what separates his plan from his competition is the level of detail, specifically the detail of what is proposed for highways and bridges.

I highly recommend that everyone read the entire plan, but the key components that I appreciate the most as a transportation professional are as follows:

  • Highway Trust Fund funding reform
  • Cutting 50% of the backlog of critical road repairs by 2030
  • Repairing 50% of structurally deficient bridges by 2030
  • Committing to Vision Zero

Highway Trust Fund funding reform

As I mentioned in a previous story, the future funding of the Highway Trust Fund is critical for any infrastructure plan that will be proposed by a 2020 candidate. The main funding mechanism for highways and bridges — the federal tax on the purchase of gasoline or the “gas tax” — has not changed in amount since 1993 and the Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to run out of funding near the end of 2021.

While Buttigieg isn’t proposing a gas tax increase, he is promising to shore up the Highway Trust Fund with $165 billion so that it remains solvent through 2029, a year after the second term of his presidency would end.

Most importantly however, he recognizes that the gas tax can no longer be relied on as a sustainable funding source because it continues to decline in revenue production, and is also a barrier to mass implementation of climate change solutions in the transportation industry that don’t rely on fossil fuel consumption such as electric vehicles. According to his plan, Buttigieg will “ require his DOT to propose a new and sustainable user fee-based system, such as a vehicle-miles-traveled fee with appropriate privacy protections that is already being piloted by states and can potentially replace the gas tax.”

In that previous story I mentioned (as the plan does) that multiple states are piloting or researching user fees so the implementation of this sole idea makes perfect sense to replace the gas tax. To make the proposal “fair” however, Buttigieg also mentions that there could be a sliding scale for the user fee based on income.

This is the first infrastructure plan that is proposing a specific sustainable solution to the ongoing Highway Trust Fund funding issues, and it is one that is growing in popularity. Too often, Congress and past administrations have relied on gimmicks and funding transfers to keep the Trust Fund solvent because they didn’t want to raise the gas tax. As he does with many subjects, Buttigieg refocuses the question completely as it isn’t whether or not to raise the gas tax — we’re past that debate. Now, it’s what can replace it?

That debate has never really happened in Congress and he’s proposed the answer without the need for a commission or study that would take more time away from implementation. Realistically, implementation will take time, and all of the previous studies and pilot programs have presented user fees as an alternative and not as a mandate. The sooner that automakers, Congress, states, municipalities and the general public all start the discussion around user fees and come up with a combined solution, the sooner they can become a 21st century reality and can replace the archaic and insufficient 20th century gas tax.

Cutting 50% of the backlog of critical road repairs by 2030

On the campaign trail Buttigieg has talked about freedom in the terms of being able to travel on safe and reliable roads to get to work. It’s something that many take for granted, but the United States is heading in the wrong direction for the quality of our roads compared to other world countries. According to the rankings by the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked as high as 10th in 2017, up from a low of 19th at the start of the decade, but has now slipped back to 17th in 2019.

Without sustainable federal support, states have been forced to triage their road repairs and/or come up with their own funding solutions such as bonding, tolling, or competing for limited federal grants and the backlog has continued to grow as states have prioritized maintenance and repair of their most critical roads. This is not how our country will increase its ranking on the world stage.

Also somewhat controversially, new projects for added capacity or mobility have taken priority over repair for some states, leading citizens to question why funds were being spent for new construction instead of fixing what was already in disrepair. Buttigieg’s plan addresses those concerns by incentivizing states to prioritize repair of existing backlog of poor roads with federal funds, and at the minimum, producing a repair and maintenance plan for all existing roads that can be achieved before funds would be allowed to be spent on new roads or added capacity. It would seem that under a Buttigieg administration, abandoning maintenance of an existing rural road for lack of funding while funding a brand new bypass will no longer be an acceptable strategy for states to pursue.

Repairing 50% of structurally deficient bridges by 2030

Going back to the previous reference of the freedom of being able to have a safe and reliable road to travel on to get to work, one thing that most Americans don’t realize is the amount of bridges that they actually travel over to get there. If just one of these bridges were to fail, such as after climate catastrophe, this could add miles and minutes to that commute, which also means an increased cost of fuel consumption and wear on a vehicle.

While incentivizing states to use federal funds for road repair, Buttigieg will actually create another $50 billion grant program to specifically address the 47,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, fixing half by the year 2030. Priority will be given to the bridges in the most critical condition.

Buttigieg also mentions that his Department of Transportation would develop new bridge safety standards for resiliency and he will also provide funding for smaller states to bundle bridge projects together based on expanding connectivity and economic opportunity between regions.

Committing to Vision Zero

Vision Zero is an initiative started in Sweden in the 1990s with a goal of zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries and spread throughout Europe and now has gained traction in many American cities like Philadelphia. The National Safety Council currently has a Road to Zero Coalition that has set its own goal of decreasing the amount of traffic deaths and serious injuries in the United States to zero by the year 2050.

In his plan, Buttigieg mentions the 36,500 people that were killed due to crashes in the United States during 2018, which is obviously well above zero. To achieve this commitment to zero deaths and serious injuries, he has proposed the following:

  • Incentivizing municipalities, counties and states to provide safe, accessible roads and retrofit existing roads.
  • Doubling funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) which would allow for the installation of more accessible sidewalks, shared use paths, crosswalks and bike lanes to increase pedestrian and bike safety.
  • Focusing on rural road safety as rural roads account for 50% of all traffic fatalities and are twice as deadly as urban roads.
  • Reauthorizing the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) which funds spot highway safety improvement projects such as intersection improvements and is a funding source for high risk rural road improvements.
  • Connecting funding to safety performance by requiring states to set safety targets to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries due to crashes and to continuously improve safety and/or design practices or else lose federal funding for other projects.
  • Increasing funding to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to $1 billion to research and address unsafe driving behavior such as distracted driving and provide more enforcement. Existing programs such as those that encourage seat belt use and the use ignition-interlock devices will also be expanded.

Let’s discuss each of these components:

More pedestrians and cyclists continue to use public roads for transportation, and with that increased usage has come increased crashes with serious injuries and fatalities according to a October 2019 report by the NHTSA . Buttigieg points out in his plan that over 6000 pedestrians were killed in those crashes. Incentivizing states to provide accessibility and accommodation for all users on proposed and existing roads will prevent crashes and save lives. It remains to be seen though if Buttigieg’s administration will push for the adoption of the Proposed Guidelines for Pedestrian Facilities in the Public Right-of-Way (PROWAG) which has been in limbo since 2011 and has strict guidelines in particular for pedestrian accessibility along roadways.

TAP was part of MAP-21, the previous re-authorization of transportation funding, and was replaced by the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program(STBGP) with transportation alternative funding becoming “set-aside” funding within the STBGP in the current FAST Act. Buttigieg would seemingly restore TAP or create a similar program, doubling the funding from the current $850 million to $1.7 billion per year. The funding would allow states to further address the increasing trend of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities due to crashes by providing for increased accommodation and retrofits.

Rural road safety continues to be a major issue and has been exacerbated by the lack of funding. In the current FAST Act, a portion of HSIP money is required to be spent on a High Risk Rural Road (HRRR) program if the fatality rate increases on the state’s rural roads over two years, but this clearly is not enough given the significant portion of fatal crashes (50%) that continue to occur on rural roads. Buttigieg has proposed funding studies for increasing rural road safety, as well as an increase in targeted funding for projects that improve rural road safety.

The HSIP is one of the best federal initiatives for improving safety that FHWA has because of the cost/benefit ratio that this funding provides for the spot improvements. As it states in my profile, I am a strong advocate of roundabouts and have designed multiple projects which have been funded from this program. Considering the total costs to society of a fatal crash being around $1.4 million according to a 2015 NHTSA study, and the 90–100% reduction of fatal crashes with the installation of roundabouts, these intersections more than pay for themselves in the long run. More roundabouts would be built on state highways due to the funding from a re-authorization of the HSIP, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars for just the fatal crashes prevented.

A key part of the FAST Act was an increased accountability for states to track their highway safety performance, however as Buttigieg points out, states can still increase the allowable amount of serious injuries and deaths each year that they track. His administration would require states to either improve their safety records or modify design processes to attempt to achieve their goals or else lose federal funding — a far stricter level of accountability for performance.

Finally, the increase in funding to NHTSA and FHWA will allow for more research into unsafe driver practices such as distracted driving which was responsible for over 3000 deaths in 2017. According to the NHTSA,seat belt usage was around 90% in 2018. In 47% of motor vehicle fatalities in 2017 however, the person killed was not wearing a seat belt, so there is still room for improvement in the awareness of how seat belts save lives. Ignition-interlock devices have saved lives simply by not allowing a vehicle to start when a driver is intoxicated and have been effective at preventing repeat offenses.

Final thoughts

Knowing that he was a mayor with first-hand experience in implementing infrastructure solutions, I was highly anticipating Pete Buttigieg’s infrastructure plan for highways and bridges and it does not disappoint. With a focus on funding reform, highway safety and research, it truly is the best of the field and its pragmatic solutions including taking a “carrot and stick” approach with states around funding are the type of thinking that is needed in Washington.

Pete Buttigieg has truly devised solutions that will finally move transportation and infrastructure forward in the United States during the first half of the 21st century and beyond.

Oregon Trail generation progressive, licensed professional engineer, advocate of roundabouts, transportation funding reform and member of organized labor.

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