Alabama Transportation Institute research drives ‘Rebuild Alabama’ discussions

As state lawmakers evaluate Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Rebuild Alabama Infrastructure Plan,” they have been able to make smart decisions based on the current conditions of state’s road and bridges as well as how demands placed on the transportation system are likely to grow over the next generation.

Legislators could confidently assess how pressures such as rising construction costs and greater fuel efficiency are impacting Alabama’s ability to pay for improvements to its road system, a ribbon of concrete and asphalt that stretches for more than 200,000 miles.

While considering the “Rebuild Alabama” legislation, they’ve been able to weigh factors such as:

  • More than 1,200 bridges in Alabama are considered structurally deficient.
  • Since 1990, just before Alabama’s fuel tax was last raised, the number of registered vehicles in the state has increased 46 percent and the number of miles traveled on the state’s roadways has jumped 57 percent.
  • The annual cost of traffic congestion to Alabama drivers is estimated at $1.4 billion.

This information, and much more, is contained in a detailed research report titled “Addressing Alabama’s Transportation Infrastructure: Roads and Bridges,” issued in January 2019 by the independent Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI) at The University of Alabama.

The 60-page Infrastructure report, prepared with input from lawmakers, policymakers and transportation officials, has been perfectly positioned to help drive many of the discussions around Gov. Ivey’s “Rebuild Alabama” bill. Read the ATI report.

Alabama State Sen. Del Marsh

“The Alabama Transportation Institute has been immensely helpful to us in this process,” said Del Marsh, President Pro Tem of the Alabama Senate. “We’ve got some of the best transportation programs in the country right here in Alabama, and we called and asked them to help us study the issue of infrastructure. I want to thank the Institute for all of their work on this issue that is incredibly important to the future of our state.”

ATI Director Dr. Shashi Nambisan said the unbiased report was created to provide everyone from lawmakers to ordinary citizens with a comprehensive analysis of Alabama’s roadways and how the system’s future funding needs are unfolding.

The Infrastructure report features seven scenarios outlining how Alabama leaders can choose to fund road and bridge improvements in future years, ranging from maintaining current levels to thrusting the state into a leadership position in the Southeast.

“We don’t make recommendations in this report. We don’t anticipate making recommendations going forward,” said Steven Polunsky, director of the Alabama Transportation Policy Research Center, an arm of the ATI. “Our role is to provide background and information so that elected officials can make informed decisions and their constituents can understand the factors that went into those decisions.”

Alabama Transportation Institute
Gov. Kay Ivey talks about her ‘Rebuild Alabama’ plan at an old bridge in Chilton County. (Image: Governor’s Office/Hal Yeager)

‘REBUILD ALABAMA’

Gov. Ivey’s “Rebuild Alabama” bill, unveiled Feb. 27 at an aging bridge in the Chilton County community of Maplesville, calls for a 10-cent increase over time in the state’s fuel tax and adjusts future rates using an index that coincides with the costs of building roads.

The state currently imposes a flat excise tax of 18 cents-per-gallon on gas and 19 cents-per-gallon on diesel, without adjusting for inflation or construction and maintenance costs.

This combined fuel tax revenue generates 80 percent of Alabama’s transportation funding. The plan’s 10-cent increase will be phased in over the next three years.

“After 27 years of stagnation, adequate funding is imperative to fixing our many roads and bridges in dire need of repair,” Gov. Ivey said. “By increasing our investment in infrastructure, we are also making a direct investment in public safety, economic development, and the prosperity of our state.”

In a press release describing her plan, the governor citied facts from the ATI Infrastructure report, pointing out that cars and trucks are putting approximately 69 billion miles on Alabama’s roadways each year, a 17 percent increase over the past 15 years.

The House has approved the bill, and Senators are considering the proposal now.

IMPORTANT INSIGHTS

A key finding in the ATI report is that Alabama’s methods of paying for its transportation infrastructure have lost and continue to lose purchasing power due to inflation, increasing fuel efficiency and road construction costs that have almost doubled since the last gas tax increase.

In essence, the report shows that the 1992 increase has been wiped out, Polunsky noted.

“We’re making the data float to the top, so we are able to show, for example, that in 1992, when we raised the gasoline tax by a nickel, over time that has been chipped away by inflation, by more fuel-efficient vehicles and by other factors. If you count inflation, the increase from 1992 is gone,” he said.

In Alabama, federal and state gas taxes on gasoline combined have been 36.6 cents since 1993. Inflation’s effects have reduced the purchasing power of that revenue stream to a little over 22 cents, the report finds.

The Infrastructure report also examines the impact of indexing Alabama’s gas tax to shield against the negative effects of inflation, a central feature of the “Rebuild Alabama” plan. For Alabama, indexing gas and diesel taxes would have raised between $1.3 billion and $5.3 billion above the amounts derived from the existing levies between 1992 and 2016, the report notes.

Safety on Alabama’s roadways is another chief concern for the ATI researchers. The Infrastructure report shows that car crashes have been increasingly significantly in Alabama since 2013 and that a majority of traffic fatalities happen in rural areas each year.

“If you look at 2016, there were 1,100 roadway fatalities in Alabama. That is a huge number,” said Justice Smyth, the ATI’s outreach director. “To put that another way, that is equivalent to a regional jet taking off from Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport and crashing and killing everybody on board once every three-and-a-half weeks.”

The economic impact of traffic accidents in Alabama was calculated to be $18.5 billion in the same year, he added.

The ATI Infrastructure report also examines a wide range of challenges to Alabama’s road system such as traffic congestion, which already costs drivers in metro areas an average of $450 a year, and labor force growth, which will add an estimated 440,000 daily commuters by 2040.

“We hope that getting this information in front of people raises the level of awareness and urgency,” Dr. Nambisan said.

Alabama Transportation Insitute
The Alabama Transportation Institute report on the state’s roadways found that 1,200 bridges are structurally deficient.

PLANNING RESOURCE

The ATI was created in 2017 by UA President Dr. Stuart R. Bell and the UA System Board of Trustees to coordinate all the transportation-related research that the university has been conducting across multiple disciplines for eight decades.

The ATI’s goal is to serve as a planning, research and policy resource to advance a 21st century transportation system in the state. ATI serves as an umbrella organization for transportation-related initiatives at UA.

Centers associated with ATI include the Transportation Policy Research Center, the Center for Advanced Public Safety, the Center of Advanced Vehicle Technologies, the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure, The Center for Business and Economics Research, and the Alabama Center for Insurance Information Research. It also includes the University Transportation Center of Alabama, which unites researchers from the UA System’s three campuses.