Note: This article has been updated to correct a production error that had duplicated text in the first and second bullets.
The nation’s aging and deteriorating roads and bridges might get a major facelift if legislation recently passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee becomes law. Led by Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) and ranking member Tom Carper (D-DE), the committee unanimously passed the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 earlier this summer by a vote of 21-0.
The bill authorizes a record $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over the next five years to modernize the nation’s transportation systems. Nearly $1 billion each year would be dedicated for use by states and communities for assessments, planning, and projects related to improving the ability of transportation assets to withstand disasters. This funding would be allocated through a combination of formula-based funding and competitive grants. These are landmark provisions, because no current program in the Department of Transportation focuses on disaster resilience.
So for the first time, communities across America will have access to federal funding to build and upgrade transportation infrastructure in ways that incorporate future risks, such as sea-level rise and increasingly extreme weather. Other solutions eligible for funding would include natural or “green” infrastructure projects, such as wetlands restoration or preservation.
This legislation is especially timely given the current condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers has determined that one in four of the country’s bridges is more than 50 years old, and one in five miles of highway is in poor condition. Severe storms are worsening our transportation system woes. Last year, Hurricane Florence caused 1,600 road closures in North Carolina, and Hurricane Michael forced officials to shutter 80 miles of Interstate 10 in Florida. Earlier this year, inland states such as Nebraska experienced multiple rounds of flooding that wiped out roads and bridges across the Midwest and southern Plains and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage.
Although the act has the potential to better protect the nation’s transportation systems from disasters, the Senate should strengthen the bill by adding these resilience provisions:
Passage of the legislation by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marks an encouraging step toward improving the nation’s ability to withstand disasters. However, it is critical that the Senate strengthen the resilience provisions in the bill to help ensure the sustainability of roads and bridges that Americans depend on daily and during disasters. Failing to do so could limit the return on investment for taxpayers and result in a missed opportunity to ensure that our transportation system rises to the challenges posed by increasingly extreme weather.
Forbes Tompkins is an officer and Evan Chapman is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.