Next time you’re on your morning commute, merging on to a freeway or crossing a bridge, think of the decennial census.
Your responses to the 2020 Census, which includes every person living in the United States, may help decide when and where roads and bridges will be built in your community.
Many states rely on population numbers from the census taken once every 10 years to allocate revenue from gasoline sales taxes, one of the primary sources of funding for local roads.
Billions of dollars in federal funds (more than $675 billion) are spent annually on critical transportation services in communities across the country, including maintenance and construction of roads and bridges. The decennial census count will inform spending decisions for the next decade.
Among the federal programs tied to census statistics are the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Highway Planning and Construction program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grants.
The impact of just these two programs is staggering.
In 2015 alone, the DOT distributed more than $38 billion through the Highway Planning and Construction program, the fourth largest amount of federal assistance informed by census statistics that year.
The annual HUD grants also provide billions in discretionary funding that local governments can choose to use to improve their infrastructure.
Both programs support construction and maintenance of the country’s 4.1 million miles of public roads, which the American Society of Civil Engineers has said are in such poor shape that they earned a “D” in its 2017 nationwide Infrastructure Report Card.
Funding from those federal programs—as well as state tax revenues allocated locally using census statistics—are critical in states such as Utah, which reports spending more than $350 million in federal highway funds in 2017.
“Since the 2010 Census, Utah has been the fastest-growing state in the nation,’’ said Evan Curtis, co-chair of the Utah Statewide Complete Count Committee, which is working to educate Utahns about the importance of responding to the census. “Along with the population growth comes a lot of development and change, and that of course increases pressure on our transportation systems, both on our roads and transit systems.”
That’s why, he said, “it’s especially critical that we have an understanding of how our population has changed and make sure that the funding is keeping up with those growing populations.”
In addition to federal programs, Census Bureau population statistics also inform how states spend their own funds on transportation infrastructure.
Many states rely on population numbers from the census taken once every 10 years to allocate revenue from gasoline sales taxes, one of the primary sources of funding for local roads. In Utah, for example, allocation of gas tax revenue is based on a weighted formula based on two figures: 50% population size, 50% on the miles of road in the area.
“Because 50% is based on population and we’re using census numbers, any undercount would have a big impact,” Curtis said.
To support transportation planning at the state and local levels, the Census Bureau tabulates data from its American Community Survey, an ongoing nationwide survey of a small percentage of the population, for use by the Census Transportation Planning Products (CTPP) program. The CTPP is a cooperative initiative funded by state transportation departments.
CTPP data sets provide both state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations information about daily commutes, vehicle availability, and other demographics that can inform what transportation infrastructure is needed and where.
The Highway Planning and Construction program helps states plan, build, improve, and maintain their portions of the National Highway System, while funds from Community Development Block Grants are used by communities to build and repair streets, bridges, and alleys.
Every year, the Census Bureau’s Survey of State and Local Government Finances polls a sample of state, county, and local governments across the country to see how much money they are taking in and how they are spending it.
Every five years, the Census of Governments collects the same information for every government in the country.
Stephen Owens, a public sector specialist in the Census Bureau’s Economy-Wide Statistics Division, said people often misunderstand which levels of government are responsible for maintaining a given road system.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, most of the public roads in the United States are owned and maintained by county governments.
“The city I grew up in had its own road maintenance department, and my mother was the mayor,” Owens said. “People would call about why their road wasn’t plowed, and that was because it wasn’t a city street.”
The Census Bureau tracks, for example, how much your government is spending on highways, Owens said, along with spending on airports, seaports, parking facilities, and public transit.
In one recent example, Owens said, the Congressional Budget Office used its statistics to determine how Federal Highway Administration funds were being used.
“We do track what comes into states as far as federal highway funding goes,” he said. “You do see the revenue going in and you can see the highway expenditure going out and can say, ‘Does this make sense?’”
The Census of Governments helps planners track how environmental, cultural, and economic conditions are affecting local and state costs related to roads, highways, and bridges.
In 2013, for example, local-level highway spending nationwide rose only 3%. However, a record snowstorm in Massachusetts drove a 25.1% increase in local-level highway spending in the Boston area and the oil boom in North Dakota sparked a 42.8% surge in the same category.
Utah needs all the money for infrastructure it can get because of a growing economy and population, Curtis said.
“The majority of our population is living in a very small portion of our state,” he said. “But then we have a lot of destinations and small rural towns scattered throughout the state, so we have a pretty large network of roads. In order to be able to maintain those in good repair, it’s definitely critical that we have accurate data and understand where people live and make sure those funds are distributed accordingly.”
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