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Regional Matters

June 29, 2021

Eyes on the Roads (and Bridges) in the Fifth District

President Joe Biden and members of Congress have been negotiating an infrastructure spending plan for several months. One component of each iteration thus far has been to provide the reauthorization of funding for highway, road, and bridge repair and construction. While the exact spending amount is still to be determined, it seems highly likely that investing in roads and bridges is forthcoming. So, what is the current state of highways, roads, and bridges in the Fifth District, where are projects underway, and where might some additional spending be needed?

Road and Bridge Quality

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reports on the quality of roads and bridges across the United States. The percentage of roads rated as acceptable and the percentage of bridges rated as poor provide two useful metrics for evaluating the quality of surface transportation across the Fifth District.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines an “acceptable” road as one where the pavement condition has an International Roughness Index of equal to or less than 170 inches per square mile. On the other hand, the FHWA rates bridges on a scale from zero “failed” to nine “excellent” and rates bridges a score less than or equal to four as “poor.”

While there is no mandated minimum threshold for road quality, it is likely that states strive to see their roads improve over time. However, most states in the Fifth District have seen a moderate decline in road acceptability over the last 10 to 15 years. In North and South Carolina, road quality improved from 2005 to 2010 but declined in the years following, as seen in the chart below. In West Virginia, since 2007, the percentage of acceptable roads has hovered around 70 percent. In Virginia, a reliable estimate for overall road quality is only available from 2011 to 2016, during which the state sampled a more comprehensive set of its roads. Over this period, the percentage of acceptable roads remained at approximately 80 percent.

Note: These data represent estimates based on sample data collected by state DOTs. The following data points were removed because smaller samples were done in those years and therefore were less reliable estimates: Virginia (2005-2010, 2017-2019), Maryland (2013, 2017, 2018), and West Virginia (2015, 2016).

Maryland was the only state in the Fifth District to show an improvement in overall road quality since 2005. From 2008 to 2014, the percentage of acceptable roads in Maryland rose from 66 percent to 78 percent. The improvement during this period corresponds with a state-funded investment of $678 million in transit and highway improvements for Central Maryland as part of the state’s six-year Consolidated Transportation Program. However, road quality in Maryland has slowly declined since 2014 when those funds expired, and despite the improvement made, overall quality has continued to lag most other states in our district.

In contrast to data on road quality, data on the percentage of bridges by area rated as poor are collected by the DOT and represent a census of all bridges listed on the National Bridge Inventory. As shown in the chart below, since 2000, the percentage of bridges in poor condition has declined consistently in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

Only in West Virginia has bridge quality deteriorated in the past two decades. From 2014 to 2020, the percentage of bridges by area rated as poor nearly doubled from 7.4 percent to 15 percent. This dramatic increase in the number of deficient bridges is likely a combination of factors including the age and amount of traffic across bridges in West Virginia and the funding, or lack thereof, dedicated to repairing those bridges.

As the above charts show, the quality of highways and roads in the Fifth District has been relatively unchanged or has worsened in recent years, while bridge quality has generally improved, with the notable exception of West Virginia. This seems to indicate that highway and road improvement projects could benefit most from additional investment. But what projects are currently underway, and how are they being funded?

Current Projects and Funding

The American Road and Transportation Builder’s Association has compiled a dashboard that shows how federal funds were allocated in the 2020 fiscal year across states. Choosing a state from their interactive map takes you to that state’s profile, which includes information about how many projects used federal funds, the amount of federal funds, and the total cost of those projects. From this data, we can see how many projects in the Fifth District benefited from federal dollars and the purpose of those projects.

Overall, there were approximately 2,100 projects in Fiscal Year 2020 in the Fifth District (not including the District of Columbia), which utilized almost $1.4 billion in federal funds. Federal funding, however, only represents a portion of the total project costs, and state, local, and private funds represent the other sources. The full cost of all those projects was over $3.1 billion. Therefore, the federal piece only accounted for about 45 percent of the total cost. The use of federal dollars varied across states, ranging from 30 percent in South Carolina to 77 percent in West Virginia.

So, what sorts of projects are these funds used for? The pie chart below shows the share of federal funds used in the Fifth District by purpose. The largest use of federal funds was to reconstruct and repair existing infrastructure, and the second largest use was to expand existing capacity or to construct new roads or highways. These two categories combined account for almost two-thirds of all federal funds.

The distribution of federal dollars by project type closely aligns with the distribution of total infrastructure costs by project type. This implies that states generally spread their use of federal dollars across all the projects they are currently undertaking. All states in the Fifth District allocate infrastructure spending along the lines of the above pie chart, with the notable exception of Virginia.

In Fiscal Year 2020, Virginia only spent 12 percent of their total road and bridge investment on reconstruction and repair projects. The largest portion of Virginia’s investments were on new construction and added capacity to existing roads, which accounted for 33 percent of the state’s total project costs. Another large portion of Virginia’s projects fell in the “other” category. The chart below highlights, by state, only a few categories from the above pie chart. In 2020, some of Virginia’s largest projects involved the construction of parking lots and garages, which fall in the “other” category. Virginia also spent a larger share on right of way purchases than other Fifth District states.

Conclusion

Negotiations between the Biden administration and members of Congress on the level and source of infrastructure spending are still ongoing at the time of writing this article. However, it is clear that the reauthorization of surface transportation spending will be an important component of any infrastructure bill that passes through Congress this year. This provides members of the Fifth District an opportunity to assess the current state of their roads and bridges and determine where to best allocate federal funding.

The quality of roads across the Fifth District has moderately declined over the past decade. And while the quality of bridges has largely improved, a number of these bridges are starting to reach the end of their useful service life. If past spending levels are any indication of the future, it is likely that a large portion of any federal outlays approved will go toward the reconstruction and repair of current roads and bridges in the Fifth District, and we could see a reversal in the overall downward trend in road quality and continued improvement in bridge quality.


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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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