Rt3_95N_IntersectionAug29 (1).JPG (copy)

Traffic moves along Route 3 in Fredericksburg on the morning of Aug. 29. Three new left-turn lanes onto Interstate 95 north are visible.

A recent study says the country’s interstate system is in trouble.

Shocking news this is not.

While American drivers aren’t exactly living in the Stone Age when it comes to roads, if the rest of the nation resembles the Fredericksburg region (and the state, for that matter) the study is right. A lot of work is needed—and desired—to keep the interstate system from becoming obsolete.

The study, ordered by Congress and conducted by a committee established by the Transportation Research Board, found that the interstate system’s “future is threatened by a persistent and growing backlog of physical and operational deficiencies and by a number of large and looming challenges.”

The system is plagued by old, deteriorating bridges and pavement and is “subject to much heavier traffic than anticipated, and operating well beyond [its] design life without having undergone major upgrades or reconstruction. These aging and heavily used segments, whose ranks will grow over the next 20 years, are poorly positioned to accommodate even modest projections of future traffic growth, much less the magnitude of growth experienced since the system’s inception in 1956.”

The study says a commitment is needed soon to fix the infrastructure, along with updating it to deal with emerging technology and the potential of extreme climate impacts.

And that commitment is going to require money—a lot of money. And the billion-dollar question is, where will all the billions of dollars come from?

Area elected and transportation officials have lamented over this looming problem for some time, in just about all facets of transportation.

Virginia's Smart Scale program also tells the tale. Statewide, proposals submitted for the most recent round of state funding amounted to $6.9 billion.

The Smart Scale pot of money comes to about $850 million.

Traditional spending on interstates nationwide has been $20-$25 billion annually, according to the study, which says that is too low “by at least 50 percent—just to proceed with the long-deferred rebuilding of the system’s aging and deteriorating pavements and bridges.”

The committee estimates it will take more than $30 billion a year over 20 years to deal with bridges and pavement alone. And the committee added that it would take another $45-$70 billion annually to handle the entire system's needs.

But wait. The cost likely will be even higher, considering the estimate doesn’t include the price tag to fix 15,000 interchanges, or adapting to expected climate change and new technology.

The committee figures the costs could be “perhaps tens of billions” more than its estimate.

The report calls for federal funding equal to when the interstate system was built—90 percent of the costs.

The committee suggests several alternatives of paying for the work: increase the federal gas tax, implement tolls or charge user per-mile fees.

Those suggestions are nothing new, but what catches the eye is the committee’s call for lifting the ban on tolling existing interstate lanes.

That is a big horse to let out of the barn.

Virginia kind of already opened that door when the Interstate 95 HOV (high occupancy) lanes were converted to toll lanes. Some of the express lanes were newly built, yes, but much of the HOV system had been in use for decades before the conversion to tolls.

It should be noted that drivers can still use the express lanes for free by following the old HOV rules by carrying passengers. Motorcyclists and buses also use the lanes for free.

Virginia has more ties to tolls. The state took part in a federal pilot project aimed at testing the addition of tolls along existing interstates, and it didn't go over very well. 

The state, along with North Carolina and Missouri, were granted three spots for the pilot project in 1998. 

Intense opposition ensued and officials decided the plan wouldn't work anyway.

The pilot program faded into the background, but the Federal Highway Administration is looking to rekindle it.

The spots seem to still be available, on a "first-come, first-served rolling basis until further notice."

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com