COVID-19 Accelerates Road Construction but Impacts Funding

by Paul Schmitz, on May 27, 2020

Work In Progress written on the roadThere is a reason why road construction happens during summer vacation, late at night or over weekends: there are fewer people on the road. With the recent crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, schools are closed, millions of people are working from home and government orders are in place to remain at home unless necessary. This lower traffic rate is creating a great opportunity for many government agencies, from city to federal, to accelerate their road construction programs. However, the lack of traffic also presents a problem - a severe lack of funding. Here's a look into why this is happening and how it will impact your company's ability to respond to this change in circumstances.

Why Some States are Accelerating Road Construction During COVID-19

With the closure of theme parks in the Orlando area, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced in early April that Florida's DOT will be accelerating a number of highway improvement and expansion projects, including a significant portion of the 1-4 Ultimate Project. This change will help ensure that as our country begins moving again, highways near "the happiest place on Earth" will be ready to handle more traffic. Across the country in cities such as Billings, Montana, the city government is prioritizing many intersection improvements, taking advantage of the estimated 40-50% reduction in road traffic to get the repairs done while everyone is at home.

As PennDOT closed the majority of construction projects due to rising COVID-19 infections in neighboring states, May 1st saw the resumption of work on a wide range of road construction projects, including highways and bridges. This occurred a full week before operations were expected to resume based on past announcements by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

"My administration has taken measured, aggressive steps to protect public health and safety, including strictly limiting the types of businesses and projects that may continue to operate during this unprecedented time. Thankfully, these actions are working... we recognize that the construction industry is vital to Pennsylvania's economy and may operate safely with stringent guidance in place that will protect employees and the public." -  Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Wolf

Raleigh, North Carolina, USA downtown city skyline.Why is road construction considered so essential during this pandemic? An estimated 3.6 million semi-trucks move 71% of our country's freight. Think back to early March and the first weeks of the CVD-19 pandemic when it was virtually impossible to find some basic household needs such as hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, disposable gloves and of course, toilet paper. Though industry has adapted to ensure a constant supply of these items are being produced, the simple fact is that without arteries to distribute these goods - our highway system - truckers can't get these items to where they're going. However, with increased demand for delivery comes more wear and tear on road surfaces caused by these essential, yet heavier loads. Our highways must be maintained so that goods can continue to reach those who need them.

As demand for essential items has increased trucking traffic, the pandemic has also significantly reduced traffic from passenger vehicles. This brings about a rare opportunity for local and state agencies to catch up on projects that are behind or even complete work ahead of schedule. This reduction in passenger traffic also provides more scheduling flexibility for construction crews and less traffic through work zones that will reduce the number of accidents and other safety issues. On the opposite side of the coin, the significant reduction in passenger vehicles has drastically lowered gas tax and toll road receipts throughout the country which have traditionally supported the funding of road improvements. With revenues slashed, how can state and local agencies fund road construction over the next several years?

More Funding for Infrastructure Needed During COVID-19

The United States Capitol and reflecting pool in Washington, DC.The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is pushing hard for flexible federal funding at a time when states face an estimated 30%-50% loss of revenue over the next 18 months. On top of this potential funding crisis, the FAST ACT will be expiring at the end of September, putting an even larger strain on most states' abilities to address their backlog of road and bridge related projects. Other organizations that are currently lobbying congress during the crisis are the National Asphalt Pavement Association and ARTBA (American Road and Transportation Builders of America). Additionally, ARTBA has initiated a grassroots effort urging congress to provide a $50 billion infusion of federal funding for critical infrastructure projects. It has established a Grassroots Action Center for those who would like to get involved.

It is more essential than ever before to keep our roads in good condition so that supply chains can continue to function efficiently, and people can have their basic needs met while sheltering at home. As we start the slow return to normal, the work being done now to improve our nation’s infrastructure will deliver even more benefits, allowing us to recover more quickly from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Next week, Tensar is launching an eight-part series discussing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on transportation construction. We will also look at the importance of investing in infrastructure to help rebuild the economy. The format will be a weekly Q&A session with leading experts in the transportation industry including government agencies, engineering & design firms, contractors, material suppliers and industry associations.  Our first topic will be a look at "the new normal" as it relates to construction in the public sector.