Sometime in the next 5-15 years, a remarkable event could occur. The first section of Interstate or interstate-quality highway will be abandoned somewhere in this country due to a lack of funds.
It will probably be a short, lightly used section of road with a decaying, expensive bridge in the middle of it. The highway department responsible for closing that section of road will try to minimize the significance of the event by calling it a temporary closure. They themselves may not even realize at that moment the closure is permanent. But it won’t be the last abandonment. My home state of Ohio’s stagnant population growth makes it a likely place for this momentous event to happen here first.
What’s even more remarkable is that it may be inevitable. There are many reasons why this will occur: rising construction costs, stagnant gas tax revenue from more fuel-efficient vehicles, high gas prices, a declining middle class, retiring Baby Boomers (75 million Americans) and car-apathetic young people (80 million Americans) that drove 23 percent fewer miles 2001-09 than did the prior generation.
Why could it be inevitable? Legislators and voters refuse to increase road taxes, institute vehicle-mile fees or convert “freeways” into toll roads. Even if they did, the higher user costs might cause people to drive even less. The effects of this unprecedented situation are profound.
Foremost, highway departments are trying to hoard all the taxpayer dollars they can, including $51.5 billion in federal subsidies since 2008 to bail out the Highway Trust Fund and $29 billion in federal stimulus dollars to expand roads they can’t afford to maintain. But it kept road builders busy during the recession.
Hoarding taxpayers’ dollars is one reason why rail and transit projects are being killed by governors like those in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin – so the politically active highwaymen can continue feeding at the public trough. A spokesman for Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jerry Wray (a former asphalt industry association executive) confirmed this remains an issue for ODOT when he was asked recently if his department would support plans for Columbus-Chicago passenger rail service.
“As I am sure you are aware, Ohio, like many other states, has limited transportation funds that do not cover the existing commitments for infrastructure investment,” Wray’s spokesman said. “This financial reality makes the needed capital investment as well as the on-going operating subsidy that would be required for a passenger rail route very difficult.”
This is all the more ironic as ridership has risen nationwide on trains and buses by 30 percent in the 21st century while miles driven have fallen to their lowest levels since before 2004. So funding is being denied to trains and transit which people are using more often in an attempt to keep people driving, which they are doing less.
The primary goal of government agencies like ODOT is survival. Under current laws, the only way ODOT can survive is to keep people driving and the gas taxes flowing. Meanwhile, ODOT has no way to capture the value from people riding trains and transit to support those new activities and transition into a multi-modal transportation agency.
Alas, ODOT spends only 1 percent of its budget on public transportation, even though 9 percent of Ohio households have no cars – that’s 1 million people. Even more households have multiple wage earners sharing one car per home. These numbers are growing as Ohio gets poorer – median family income has fallen to its lowest levels in 27 years. Yet Ohio spends less on basic public transportation than it does to cut the grass along its interstates. Ohio legislators need to find a way to capture value from Ohioans traveling by trains and transit.
Furthermore, well-funded and organized civil rights activists, environmentalists and fair housing advocates see transportation agencies taking money from public transit to save an aging, overbuilt highway system from insolvency. They recently won a federal action against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for failing to include transit improvements as part of a $1.7 billion highway interchange in Milwaukee.
One could argue that ODOT’s policies do that every day by spending so little on transit compared to the number of Ohioans who have no access to cars. Physical access to basic services is a human right in a civilized society. Whether Ohio chooses to remain one will depend on its actions in the coming years as we continue to get older and poorer.
So that first section of abandoned interstate will be symptomatic of the sweeping changes occurring in America’s transportation system. It’s why the highwaymen are trying to postpone it for as long as they can. It’s a tough pill for them to swallow. But it’s inevitable. The only question is where and when.