All trips start and end at home. Whether you live in a city, the country, or somewhere in-between, the best word to describe the roads you rely on everyday would almost certainly be local.
Local highway and public works agencies manage nearly 95 percent of the lane miles in the country and are responsible for most of the nation’s bridges. They manage our vital national network of local roads and streets, bridges and culverts, ditches and drains, keeping our economy humming, and more importantly, safeguarding the safety of the traveling public.
Unfortunately, local highway and public works departments have had to do more with less for decades while dealing with rising prices, broadening responsibilities, diminishing labor pools, and of course — inadequate funding. Infrastructure is always a talking point, but too often the actions do not match the words. Failure in Washington to pass a long-term infrastructure bill again would doom local roads to a future of scant resources; an outcome with devastating effects on local communities nationwide.
The United States needs a renewed investment in infrastructure at every level and with a long-term focus of many years. The FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation), passed in 2015, was the first truly long-term infrastructure bill passed in the 21st century. Prior to that, the bills that passed were two years or less in length and most years were funded with continuing resolutions or extensions.
The good news is the opportunity for renewed investment is within our grasp thanks to a broad coalition of local, state, and national advocacy groups who are working to pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684). This once in a generation proposal would invest $550 billion in new infrastructure spending over five years. It has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and the backing of the White House.
But familiar warning signs are flashing. Despite all its support, the legislation is resting in a familiar danger zone as short term limited transportation bills are rearing up as alternatives — threatening to kick any meaningful change down the road (pun intended). For the sake of our national transportation system and especially our local roads, we cannot lose the opportunity to pass H.R. 3684.
History can be a convenient guide for policymakers who need inspiration to come together and focus on infrastructure investment. Over a century ago our country recognized that we must get the farmer out of the mud to successfully grow the national economy and that accomplishing this would require large increases in road funding to local communities. A coalition of farmers, road builders and bicyclists helped create a Good Roads Movement that led to the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 signed by President Woodrow Wilson, the first federal highway act.
At the time, aside from a few exceptions, roads and streets were truly local and for the most part, rural. This bill acted as the impetus for the creation of state transportation agencies and many federally sponsored funding proposals to follow.
Today — in the face of climate change — we often learn about efforts to shore up levees, upgrade flood control, and prepare large cities for future storm events. But we rarely think about the smaller roads and bridges in local areas. Local roads often adjoin creeks and streams that turn into raging torrents of water when a major storm event occurs.
Hurricane Ida took the lives of dozens of people, many of whom were caught out on local roads that were quickly flooded by torrential rains. Local highway and public works departments are on the front lines of updating our nation’s roads to account for bigger storm events but without adequate funding, they often are forced to defer making these critical upgrades.
Providing funding for 21st century infrastructure also means training and workforce development. Too often we see local transportation agencies with an aging workforce have few options for qualified replacements. Heavy equipment operators, Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) holders, and proficiency in new technologies like connected and automated vehicles will be critical for an effective local transportation workforce.
We also know that, especially since the pandemic, more people are working out of their homes. While this may reduce the pressure on the interstate and other major highways, this change is shifting the transportation burden to local communities. New and larger urban centers and suburbs springing up in the Sun Belt states will need infrastructure to support the influx of new residents. But this must be done while still maintaining the existing local infrastructure in our sparsely populated rural areas.
In rural areas, there is an increased need for access to broadband and new technologies, not forgetting other critical services like good education and healthcare. Whether it is rural broadband or first responder access, these services all require reliable infrastructure.
As was the case 100 years ago, the need is dire and now is the time for historic action to strengthen all of our national infrastructure for future generations.
David Orr P.E., PhD., is director of the Cornell Local Roads Program at Cornell University.