Data show US transportation network performance is declining

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan has ignited a long overdue national conversation about how to modernize the nation’s roads, public transit, bridges, airports, and ports. It’s also spawned a host of Pavlovian critics, who are using cherry-picked facts to advance the misguided notion that the U.S. transportation network is just fine and doesn’t need federal intervention. The facts show otherwise.

The overall performance of America’s transportation system, by three distinct, data-driven measurements, is declining. First, the Federal Highway Administration estimates freight bottlenecks on the national highway system alone each year cost £42 billion and result in 660 million hours of lost time for truckers. In Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia combined, it’s almost £2 billion and almost 30 million hours lost.

These costs are not just absorbed by transportation companies; they’re frequently passed on to consumers in higher prices for goods and services. Second, commuters and drivers increasingly pay for traffic congestion out of their own pockets. According to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report, published by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the average freeway driver must allow twice as much time for routine trips because of congestion.

In Washington, D.C., alone, drivers spend 100 more hours in their vehicle each year than they need to at an average cost of more than £2,000. Third, according to 2020 FHWA data, nearly 1 out of every 3 U.S. bridges, or 220,000, need major repair or should be replaced. If placed end-to-end, the length of these bridges would stretch more than 6,000 miles, long enough to travel across the country from Atlanta to Los Angeles, and continue up to Deadhorse, Alaska, the furthest point north on the state’s highway system.

More than 45,000 bridges nationwide are structurally deficient, are in poor condition, and need the most immediate attention. At current investment levels and pace of repair, it would take 40 years to repair them. It should come as no surprise that the nation’s transportation network is sputtering because we’ve neglected it.

Public spending on transportation and water infrastructure as a share of U.S. GDP has fallen over the last 60 years, from 3% in 1959 to 2.28% in recent years. Comparatively, annual infrastructure spending in China, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, is an average of 8% of the country’s GDP.

A vocal minority always howls at the moon when it comes to expanded infrastructure investments. The simple fact is the public is already paying a steep price with hidden traffic congestion costs, lost time, and increased prices for products in stores or delivered to their homes. As Biden and lawmakers on Capitol Hill deliberate on a long-term infrastructure bill, all revenue options, including user-fee-based ones, should be on the table.

What should be off the table is the short-sighted view that we can live with the status quo. The most important thing is not whose plan passes Congress. Rather, it is that the public has a transportation network that improves mobility, operates more efficiently, and results in a stronger and more globally competitive economy.

Alison Premo Black is chief economist of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.