Covid-19 Spurs a Road Repair Boom—and Threatens a Bust

Empty highways clear the way for speedier construction projects, but loss of fuel taxes could bring them to a

Curated via Twitter from WIREDTransport’s twitter account….

Looking at a $300 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, the North Carolina DOT has delayed more than 100 roadwork projects set to start in the coming year. (It’s going ahead with work funded by bonds and federal grants. ) California, too, is headed for a budgetary crunch: A new report out of UC Davis estimates the state is losing out on $46 million a week in fuel taxes.

In Hawaii, construction consultant Scott Jennings says he’s getting no regulatory pushback on requests to extend work windows from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm—right into rush hour. “I’m as busy now, or busier now than I’ve been in the last three, four years,” he says.

Unlike most busts, this one’s not waiting for the boom times to wrap up. “We are now seeing some states pull back on projects they planned to work on this spring, summer, and fall due to the uncertainty of state-generated transportation funds,” Tymon said. “Many are not moving forward with plans to put projects out for bid this month and next.

Along with the bridge deck project, Caltrans is accelerating projects repaving stretches of Highway 1 in San Francisco and Highway 101 in Sonoma County, building a series of roundabouts in the city of Napa, and getting ahead of sundry maintenance projects.

Jennings, the Hawaii construction consultant, worries that some part will break on an Italian-made machine that injects grout into the ground. “If any part or piece goes down and has an Italian part number on it," he says, "it’s gotta come out of Italy,” no easy thing to swing amid a global shutdown.

Indeed, Wisconsin DOT chief Craig Thompson told Wisconsin Public Radio that his agency is getting ahead on projects already underway, but that without federal aid, he anticipated “significant changes” to work slated for 2021.

Plummeting car sales mean states collect greatly reduced registration and title fees. “This is money they count on to fund the transportation projects they sponsor,” the association’s executive director, Jim Tymon, said in a webinar this week.

Construction is ill suited to social distancing and wrapping workers in protective gear. “When you’ve been building shoulder to shoulder your whole career and now you have to do it six feet apart, it’s just not physically possible,” Jennings says.

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