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Origins Of The Interstate Maintenance Program
Every President and succeeding Congresses have honored the strong bipartisan commitment to the Interstate System that was reflected in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That commitment continued through the construction stage, but evolved to include a strong desire to preserve the taxpayers' investment in the Interstate System by helping the States keep the network in shape. Although the Interstate System envisioned by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, as amended, is essentially complete, the commitment to preserving the Nation's investment remains strong.
"The state of our transportation system affects
President Ronald Reagan
Although the origins of the Interstate System can be traced to the late 1930s, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 launched the Interstate Highway Program. This legislation authorized Interstate Construction (IC) funds for use at a Federal-State matching ratio of 90-10. It also committed the Federal Government to a cost-to-complete philosophy of paying 90 percent of the cost to build the Interstate System to full standards, whatever the cost turned out to be.
One thing the landmark 1956 Act did not do was provide for maintenance of the Interstate highways. This is not surprising. Since the Federal-aid highway program began in 1916 under President Woodrow Wilson, the States had been responsible for maintenance based on the concept that the States own and operate the roads. Because the Interstate routes were to be owned by the States and built by the State highway agencies (with Federal funding assistance and oversight), the 1956 Act retained the long-standing premise that the States would maintain the new highways.
Further, the 1956 Act focused on initial construction to Interstate standards. The legislation did not provide for upgrading the Interstates to meet changing demands or wear and tear years after they were built. Again, not surprising. Just as a person who builds a new home does not begin putting money aside for a new roof, the Members of Congress trying to find $27 billion to build the Interstate System did not worry about what would happen after years of heavy-duty service.
War Half a World Away Stuns the USA
By the 1970s, the Interstate System was showing signs of wear and tear. Part of the problem was that pavements built in the 1950s and early 1960s were reaching their design life (the number of years a pavement is expected to last, with proper maintenance, based on estimates of the loadings it will absorb during that time, particularly truck loadings). Because the Interstates were carrying more and heavier traffic than predicted, many segments absorbed 20 years of wear and tear in far fewer years than expected.
In October 1973, oil-producing countries in the Middle East, eventually working through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, announced they would stop oil exports to the United States to protest American support of Israel during its Yom Kippur War with Syria and Egypt. The resulting oil shortages in the United States led to long lines at gas stations and higher prices for fuel, prompting the country to seek ways to reduce oil use.
Although the oil boycott ended in March 1974, the shock of dealing with the problem made clear that the country would have to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. As a result, conservation efforts continued through the 1970s, with a second shortage and panic in 1979 related to the Iranian Revolution reinforcing the need to reduce dependence on foreign oil. People continued carpooling, using transit, or riding bicycles instead of single-occupant automobiles. Automakers joined their Asian competitors in producing vehicles that were smaller and more fuel-efficient than the "gas-guzzlers" that had been common in an era of cheap gasoline. To help conserve gasoline, Federal legislation enacted in January 1974 prohibited Federal-aid highway project approvals in any State that did not adopt a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour - a speed that uses fewer gallons of gas per mile than the higher speeds common at the time. (This restriction would not be fully lifted until 1995.)
America's vitally important effort to reduce oil dependency had the unintended consequence that the reduced use of gasoline resulted in declining gas tax revenue for highway construction and maintenance. Further, because oil is a component in the cost of highway construction and maintenance, costs were increasing at the same time revenue was reduced or at least not increasing as rapidly as expected. Many States had to make tough decisions about how the available gas tax revenue would be used. The result in many cases was that maintenance suffered. In addition, high inflation resulting from economic policies of the 1960s and the increased price of gasoline rippling through the economy resulted in an unusual case of "stagflation" (a stagnant economy with high inflation).
At all levels of government, resources for infrastructure construction and maintenance suffered. As maintenance declined, the media focused attention on the Nation's "crumbling infrastructure," with deteriorating highways, including Interstates, and bridges adding evidence to the growing sense that the Federal Government should do something to reverse the trend.
3R to the Rescue
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1976 took the first step in addressing the problem for the Interstate System. It authorized $175 million a year for fiscal years 1978 and 1979 "for resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating those lanes on the Interstate System which have been in use for more than five years and which are not on toll roads." The Federal share would be 90 percent. The 1976 Act also modified the statutory definition of Federal-aid "construction" to include "resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating." As a result, activities that had been considered "heavy maintenance" and, therefore, ineligible for Federal-aid funding became eligible, whether on and off the Interstate System.
The Conference Report on the 1976 Act explained the intended eligibility limits:
In addition to these changes, the 1976 Act called for a study of Interstate 3R needs. The resulting Report to Congress found:
The backlog of R-R-R work on approximately 8,000 miles of older Interstate segments is estimated to cost $2.6 billion (1975 dollars). Thereafter, the continuing annual need for R-R-R work is estimated to be $950 million (excluding inflation).
The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978 made Interstate 3R funding a permanent category as Title 23, United States Code, Section 119, and authorized $900 million over FY's 1980-1983 for this purpose. The Federal share was changed to 75 percent. In addition, the legislation made Interstate toll mileage eligible for Interstate 3R funding if an agreement was in place to stop toll collection after enough revenue was collected to retire bonded indebtedness while covering operation and maintenance costs.
The Fourth R
With most of the Interstate System open, the focus was gradually shifting to completing the remaining mileage as quickly as possible while establishing a long-term program to protect the taxpayers' investment in the network.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1981 took a major step in sorting out the issues. First, it redefined "completion" to focus IC funds on getting the remaining mileage open. This change modified the cost-to-complete commitment by limiting IC funds to construction needed to provide a minimum level of acceptable service. Second, it changed "3R" to include a fourth R, reconstruction, that would cover all the work that was no longer eligible for IC funding. Interstate 4R funding would be made available by formula (not on a cost-to-complete basis), with each State transportation department deciding which projects to develop within Interstate 4R funding limits.
Even with this infusion of funds, concern about the condition of the Interstate System continued to grow. Some headlines suggest the growing concern:
In June 1982, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report titled The Interstate Highway System: Issues and Options based in part on data compiled for the earlier Report to Congress and a 1980 update that was not released. In addition to describing a decline in revenue going into the Highway Trust Fund, the CBO summarized the problem of reconstruction:
A Nickel a Gallon
This growing attention to the long-term problem resulted in an important change in 1982. On the advice of Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis and Federal Highway Administrator Ray Barnhart, President Ronald Reagan agreed to support a 5-cent a gallon increase in the Federal gas tax. Because the President had said that only a "palace coup" would cause him to support tax increases, reporters asked him if a palace coup had occurred. The President explained that he had opposed a gas tax increase as part of an overall tax bill, but this proposal was targeted to the need for additional revenue to address infrastructure needs at a cost to individuals of about $30 a year. He addressed the need for this revenue a number of times in statements and speeches in support of legislation.
With the President's support, the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 increased the tax by a nickel, but not all of the increased revenue went to highway and bridge projects. The legislation split the Highway Trust Fund into a Highway Account and a Transit Account, with 4 cents of the new revenue going into the Highway Account, along with revenue from the other highway user taxes, while 1 cent of the nickel was credited to the Transit Account. The additional revenue allowed for increased Interstate 4R authorizations:
The Federal-State matching ratio returned to 90-10.
In addition, Section 115(a) of the 1982 Act established the I-4R Discretionary Program. Funds were to be derived from lapsed I-4R apportionments (funds the States did not use during their period of availability) and were available to States that (a) had obligated all their I-4R apportionments, except for amounts too small to pay for a project submitted for approval, and (b) were willing and able to obligate the funds within 1 year of the date they were made available, apply them to a ready to commence project, and, for construction work, begin work within 90 days of obligation.
Funding for bridge replacement and rehabilitation also increased significantly, addressing the other component in the campaign to improve the Nation's infrastructure.
President Reagan's statement on signing the 1982 Act on January 6, 1983, related mostly to the need for repairing the Interstate System:
By the mid-1980's, progress in getting ahead of the deterioration cycle - while one road is repaired, others deteriorate - was measurable. In 1987, Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole submitted a report to Congress that documented significant improvement in the overall condition of the Nation's highways. In releasing the report, she said:
States have made pavement reconstruction and resurfacing a priority since passage of the 1982 Act. As a result, the overall condition of pavement on major highways has improved, reversing a pattern established between 1980 and 1982, when highway surfacing was wearing out faster than it was being replaced... Today, new funding is enabling states to respond to highway capacity needs long postponed in the 1970s for lack of money.
The Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 (STURAA) retained the Interstate 4R Program, authorizing $2.815 billion a year for the Interstate 4R Program for FY's 1988 through 1992. Section 114 of STURAA also provided $200 million a year from the I-4R authorization for continuation of the I-4R Discretionary Program and provided criteria/factors to be used in distributing the discretionary funds.
The Post-Interstate Era
With the Federal-aid highway program authorized under STURAA through FY 1992, the transportation community realized that the time had come to plan for a post-Interstate program. As transportation interests debated a wide range of options for such a program, all parties accepted as a bedrock principle that the investment in the Interstate System must be preserved. The national interest recognized at the start of the Interstate Construction Program in 1956 was just as strong now that the program was winding down - and maybe stronger because the value of the Interstate System was clearer at the end of the program than at the start.
The result of the post-Interstate debate was the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). It reorganized the Federal-aid highway and transit programs in many ways. It also authorized the final IC funds through FY 1996 and eliminated the Interstate 4R Program. In its place, ISTEA created the Interstate Maintenance (IM) Program, which retained much of the eligibility under 3R, shifting the fourth R to the new funding category for the National Highway System (NHS), a network to be designated that would include the Interstate System plus other roads of national importance. Section 1009 of ISTEA stated:
Activities authorized [for IM funding] ... include the reconstruction of bridges, interchanges, and over crossings along existing Interstate routes, including the acquisition of right-of-way where necessary, but shall not include the construction of new travel lanes other than high occupancy vehicle lanes or auxiliary lanes.
In addition, IM funds could be used for preventive maintenance for the first time if a State could demonstrate through its pavement management system that the work would extend Interstate pavement life in a cost-effective manner.
ISTEA authorized $17 million in IM funds over the 6 years covered by the legislation and provided funds for the I-4R Discretionary Program. These funds were from the National Highway System funds.
The FHWA's A Guide to the Federal-Aid Highway Emergency Relief Program contains the following description of the IM Program:
In 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century continued IM funding, restored the fourth R to eligibility, and authorized a total of $23.809 billion through FY 2003. The Guide provided the specifics:
TEA-21 also continued the IM discretionary set aside, as reflected in this summary from the Guide:
In recent years, the Conference Report on each year's appropriations act for the Department of Transportation has designated projects for all IM discretionary funding.
The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), approved August 10, 2005, authorized a total of $25.2 billion through FY 2009. A fact sheet on the FHWA Web site describes the current program under SAFETEA-LU:
*Authorizations will be augmented by a portion of the Equity Bonus Program funds.
Today, many observers in the transportation community view SAFETEA-LU as the last bill of its type. The next reauthorization bill, these observers say, will have to find new revenue sources and change the program to meet the realities of the 21st century. In recognition of this view, SAFETEA-LU called for two commissions to explore options for the next bill:
As a result, the direction of the Federal-aid highway program is unknown, but the commitment to preservation of the taxpayers' investment in the Interstate System, as reflected in legislation dating to 1976, is likely to remain strong.
This page last modified on 04/07/11