CAPITAL REGION — The Capital Region’s aging transportation systems will require hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment each year in coming decades just to keep up with maintaining infrastructure like roads and bridges, according to a newly approved regional planning report.
The New Visions 2050 report, recently approved by the Capital District Transportation Committee, warns that construction of the interstate highway system and roads to accommodate new suburbs in the mid-20th century are approaching the end of their lifespan.
“Most experts look and say you can maintain infrastructure so much, and then you have to reconstruct it or replace it,” said CDTC Executive Director Michael V. Franchini. “I give people the example, you can repair a roof so many times, and then you have to replace it — and with highways and bridges it’s the same.”
The Transportation Committee manages the spending of federal transportation dollars in Albany, Saratoga, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, with a professional planning staff and a Policy Committee that includes leading elected officials in the region, with Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan as chair person. A draft of the New Visions report was released in March after nearly a year of work, and it was approved by the committee on Sept. 3 after months of public review.
The report, which is updated every five years, is a 30-year plan that outlines investment principles, planning strategies, and budget priorities, without much discussion of specific projects. But it does say that the condition of roads and bridges, in general, has declined over time, and new money is needed if their condition is to improve.
“Maintaining the existing infrastructure is a high priority,” Franchini said. “We need more funding just to maintain what we have. We don’t feel like we need to build more capacity. We’re not talking about new roads.”
The total cost of maintaining and replacing the Capital Region’s transportation infrastructure is expected to rise to around $775 million per year by 2050 — compared to about $435 million that has been spent in the four counties annually in recent years. Spending less in the future will have consequences, the report warns.
“CDTC’s budget analysis asserts that the 2050 Plan is fiscally balanced over time — but only if public funding increases regularly over the upcoming decades as it has done in the past,” the report states. “A reduced level of revenues would lead to serious declines in physical and service conditions, making even the most modest improvements difficult to accomplish.”
The $775 million figure includes anticipated state and local government funding, as well as federal transportation dollars. Franchini said the hope is that current funding levels will rise each year between now and 2050 — a hope that depends on the wills of Congress, the state Legislature and county and local governments to come up with the needed funding.
Such funding is inevitably uncertain.
Revenue from the federal gas tax, the primary funding source for the Highway Trust Fund, is billions of dollars short of keeping up with the cost of maintaining transportation systems — a situation widely discussed in transportation planning circles but which Congress has yet to address.
The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel hasn’t changed since 1993, and at this point brings in less money than is needed to maintain roads and bridges.
The current federal transportation funding bill, the $305 billion five-year FAST Act, expires Sept. 30, and the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are far apart in negotiations. Those negotiations have been sidelined by the COVID pandemic response and election year politics.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has adopted a $494 billion five-year plan that was then included in a larger $1.5 billion infrastructure package in June. The Republican-controlled Senate in 2019 authorized a $287 billion plan. The Trump administration has come out in favor of the Senate proposal, and in opposition to the House legislation.
Franchini, who is in touch regularly with organizations that monitor any negotiations, isn’t expecting another multi-year funding bill for a while, though something has to be put in place or current construction projects will lose their funding. A short-term extension of the FAST Act would most likely maintain the same funding levels.
“What we’re hearing out of Washington is that there’s likely to be an extension of the FAST Act. It’s just the politics of the situation,” Franchini said. “You can get by with extensions, but you’re not going to see any more funding with doing that.”
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association and partners including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday wrote all members of Congress asking for a one-year extension of the FAST Act with increased funding, and provisions to ensure the gas tax fund remains solvent.
In addition to warning about the pending financial crunch, the New Visions report says the transportation system needs to prepare for coming major changes in transportation technology, including more widespread adoption of electric and self-driving vehicles. The report also projects there will be more use of shared cars, bicycles and e-scooters.
The report asserts that the emphasis of future investment should be on encouraging more urban development and on alternatives to auto transportation, as well as on maintaining existing infrastructure.
“By implementing New Visions 2050, we can avoid the mistakes of other fast-growing regions, where residents are stranded with long, expensive commutes, increased housing costs, suburbs with no identity and overwhelming infrastructure costs,” the report concludes. “Doing nothing also leaves the Capital Region heavily dependent on the automobile and vulnerable to the full impacts of volatile fuel costs, the changing climate, and other security hazards.”
Planning is underway for a series of virtual presentations to explain the goals of the new plan to local leaders and the public.
“We need their support to implement this plan, so now that it’s approved we need to go out there and educate people, municipalities, about the plan,” Franchini said.