Connecting state and local government leaders
Places like beach towns and Las Vegas are losing out under current infrastructure funding formulas.
Earlier this year, President Trump announced his administration’s plan to repair America’s infrastructure. For far too long, U.S. visitors and citizens alike have been forced to navigate growing highway congestion, airports ill-equipped to handle rising passenger traffic, aging railways and increasingly disconnected cities.
Our outdated, inefficient and deteriorating transportation systems are a drag on the economy, not to mention travelers’ sanity—especially when they’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour-level traffic, which is now the norm on many U.S. highways. What’s worse, many of the roads to America’s most heavily trafficked destinations, from beach cities like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to major destinations like Las Vegas, are essentially starved of federal funding for needed infrastructure improvements, threatening the vitality of local economies and even posing serious public safety risks.
Why? There are three factors at play here.
First: there simply isn’t enough funding for infrastructure improvements. Most in Washington can acknowledge that.
Second: historically, U.S. census population data, but not visitation data (i.e. estimates of the number of non-residential transportation users), has been the major factor in calculating the allocation of federal-aid formula funds, a major source of what meager infrastructure funding already exists. But vast areas of the country regularly accommodate thousands of non-residential business and leisure travelers, who rely upon and place extraordinary demand on local transportation networks.
Third: If/when cities and states get this much-needed money, local leaders would have the best know-how to dictate how the money should be spent. Currently, broad federal rules are what determine the vast majority of infrastructure improvements nationwide, not state and local needs. This should change.
My organization, the U.S. Travel Association, recently released some guiding infrastructure principles that include two specific steps the federal government can take to fix our most-trafficked roads. These are:
1.) Account for non-residential traveler numbers when distributing funds for highway and other infrastructure improvements (including rail transit and airport expansion).
2.) Give states and cities greater freedom to determine what transportation modes they spend it on. States and local governments should have the power to invest in mobility-enhancing projects that work best for their population, visitors, and regional economy, whether that’s airport connections, public transit updates, passenger rail or highway improvements.
Myrtle Beach and Las Vegas are great examples of why Washington needs to consider and account for visitor numbers when allocating infrastructure improvement funds to local governments—and why these local governments should have more power to determine how that money is spent.
An unfinished connecting portion of Interstate 73 has left Myrtle Beach and other South Carolina communities without a major Interstate connection, leading to crippling seasonal congestion and hampering the region’s ability to compete for visitors—or to safely evacuate during natural disasters. Myrtle Beach, and many other communities like it, are unable to meet the transportation and safety needs of its visitors, simply because they don’t have a large enough year-round population according to the standards the feds use.
However, even a major city with a large year-round population like Las Vegas isn’t immune to this problem. Within the next five years, Labor Day-like traffic will plague U.S. highways on a daily basis—and I-15 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas will reach this level of congestion by 2026. But, if the governments of Nevada and Las Vegas received additional federal funds based on the number of visitors they accommodate, the state and city might have the additional funding they need to solve these problems sooner rather than later.
Tallying visitor numbers and passenger traffic, and using those to influence infrastructure funding decisions, would be a major first step to alleviating this problem. The next step: focus on mobility, not specific modes of transportation. Rather than requiring new federal funds to be divvied up by mode with strict strings attached, the U.S. government should allow states to use the funds flexibly in any way that will enhance mobility, whether that’s widening a highway to alleviate congestion, developing passenger rail, or providing better connections to or from the airport.
U.S. Travel’s guiding principles include a few recommendations for how to do that, too. They include:
- Focus more resources on improving multimodal connections between major transportation arteries that facilitate long-haul passenger travel (meaning highways, airports, passenger rail, and rail/bus transit). That way travelers can move easily to and from cities like Las Vegas, and onward to other destinations.
- Complete unfinished portions of the Interstate highway system, to ensure highly trafficked communities like Myrtle Beach aren’t stranded.
- Convene the National Advisory Committee on Travel and Tourism Infrastructure (NACTTI), which was mandated as part of the FAST Act but hasn’t met since 2016. This advisory board of travel and tourism leaders can help by counseling the federal government on the actual economic impact of visitation for local communities, and highlighting gaps in connectivity.
Leaving cities like Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach with inadequate infrastructure doesn’t just drive travelers crazy—it drives them away, with major consequences for the U.S. economy and workers. According to a U.S. Travel survey, 38 percent of travelers would avoid between one and five road trips per year if congestion continues to grow at its current pace. If travelers avoided just one auto trip per year, the U.S. economy would lose out on $23 billion in spending, and 208,000 American jobs.
For America’s infrastructure to move into the 21st century, and to fix our most heavily trafficked roads, the U.S. government should keep mobility in mind, not mode, when funding transportation improvements, and let states and cities choose how to update their infrastructure. Our economy’s health not only depends on it but could thrive because of it.
Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing all segments of travel in America.