July 1, 2020 11:30 AM, EDT

ASCE Report: COVID-19 Compounds Infrastructure Woes

potholeA pothole on a road. (delectus/Getty Images)

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The COVID-19 pandemic is negatively impacting the nation’s already blighted infrastructure sectors, according to a recent status report from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The report, titled “COVID-19’s Impacts on America’s Infrastructure” and released June 24, suggests the pandemic is making a challenging situation worse. Infrastructure systems that are bolstered by user-generated revenue are facing a shortfall, as travelers are staying away from transit, off of roads and out of airports.

“It’s had a profound impact on travel in the United States,” Casey Dinges, ASCE senior managing director, told Transport Topics. “Either for business reasons or personal reasons, people are not traveling. When you have less travel going on, the user fees that people pay into the system to keep the system going and funded are disrupted considerably.”

In the Washington metropolitan area, for example, Dinges noted that people have less of an incentive to use the high-occupancy toll lanes during peak travel times because there are fewer people in the regular traffic lanes. He also noted that public transportation ridership has collapsed, but transit facilities need to stay open for essential service workers.

Dinges pointed out that people probably would choose to travel by car rather than train, airplane or bus during the pandemic for safety reasons.

“It seems like all forms of transportation have been affected,” he said. “In terms of leisure travel, you can kind of see how people would take road trips. We might see increased road use that way in terms of city-to-city travel. They may be willing to consider driving further than they would have before.”

Infrastructure needs nationwide were pressing before the pandemic struck. According to the report, 46,100 bridges are structurally deficient nationwide, and it would take 50 years to fix them all at current investment rates. ASCE notes that the federal fuel tax’s purchasing power was dropping even before the pandemic led to reduced road usage, placing bridges at risk for further decline. The federal fuel tax has stagnated at 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel and 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline since 1993.

The federal Highway Trust Fund, which assists states with maintenance and construction projects, posted a 49% decline of receipts in May 2020 when compared with May 2019, according to ASCE. Dinges said the fund collected about $4 billion in May 2019, a figure that shrank to $2.1 billion this year.

Roads face similar rehabilitation needs. One out of every five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition, according to ASCE. The group recommends Congress provide $50 billion in relief for state departments of transportation. ASCE also urges Congress to pass a surface transportation package, pointing out that current authorization expires Sept. 30.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced the Moving Forward Act, which would dedicate $1.5 trillion to rebuilding infrastructure. The legislation proposes investing $300 billion to fix roads and bridges. It also aims to fund essential dredging of harbors, ports and channels to keep cargo moving.

Dinges said the legislation is a positive step, especially because it takes into consideration so many of the categories ASCE tracks on its periodic infrastructure report cards. However, he said Congress still needs to determine a way to sustain the Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by the federal fuel tax. ASCE supports an increase to the fuel tax as a financing solution.

RELATED: House Policymakers Consider Multiyear Highway Bill

“It’s not a perfect bill, but we have supported moving it forward,” Dinges said. “Instead of just looking at an aviation bill as a one-off, or a highway bill as a one-off, or a wastewater grants bill as a one-off, you kind of bring it all together.”

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