America's interstate highway system, launched more than 60 years ago, now carries far more vehicles than it was originally built for and is in dire need of repairs and improvements.
The U.S. has "taken a generation off" from investing in infrastructure, says Brian Pallasch, director of government relations at the American Society of Civil Engineers. And with Americans driving more than ever before, that's leading to problems like frustration-inducing congestion and costly car repair bills.
"The roadways that we drive on every day put quite a toll on our vehicles," Pallasch tells Here & Now. "The average driver ... faces about $600 in vehicle repairs and maintenance in a given year just from the roadway system that damages it."
Construction projects to improve or expand interstate highways are underway across the country. Among them is a more than $2 billion effort to reconstruct 21 miles of Florida's Interstate 4, including a section that weaves right through downtown Orlando, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S.
"We've taken a generation off of investing in our infrastructure, and I think our interstate highway system demonstrates that."Brian Pallasch
The project, dubbed I-4 Ultimate, is exposing one of the many hurdles when it comes to addressing the state of interstate highways: Other infrastructure has continually sprung up around them over the course of decades, and hundreds of thousands of people now rely on interstates daily. That makes construction complex, to say the least.
"There's sewer lines and water mains and storm drains and electrical wires, fiber optic cables, that many times run through the right of way of these roadway systems or run across them. And so a lot of the utilities have to be reworked or relocated," Pallasch says. "All the while, [you're] trying to ensure that the traveling public gets to access the system."
While projects like I-4 Ultimate are a positive step, highway congestion isn't an issue America can build its way out of, Pallasch says. He points to Los Angeles as a model of how a car-centric culture can take steps to address the problem through other means.
"They are investing very heavily not only in rebuilding some of their roadway systems, but they're investing heavily in transit and they're actually trying to provide people [with] additional options for mobility," Pallasch says. "We need to start rethinking how we're going to get from point A to B. We need to start thinking about maybe even how close we live to where we work."
Working from home offers another avenue for reducing the number of cars on the road and the subsequent strain on highways, Pallasch says.
There's also the question of where funding for these large-scale interstate overhauls will come from. Lawmakers in Congress have been reluctant to raise the federal gas tax — it's stayed the same since 1993 — which generates revenue that feeds America's highway trust fund. The federal government draws from the fund to pay for highway and transit projects.
The American Society of Civil Engineers supports raising that tax, which currently sits at 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 23.4 cents per gallon of diesel. Beyond the gas tax, Pallasch says, is an even more controversial option: charging drivers per mile they drive.
"Some folks have pause with that notion. But the reality is, it is a fair way to do it," he says, adding that increased tolling is also on the list of options to consider to generate revenue to put toward infrastructure. "We see more electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles being utilized, and they're actually not paying into the system at all."
Pallasch says highway problems will continue to plague drivers if revamping interstates falls down the priority list.
"There is a toll to what we're doing, if you will, by not maintaining our roadway systems," he says.
This segment aired on June 3, 2019.