by Matt Alderton | May 23, 2019

A record 37.6 million Americans are expected to travel by car this holiday weekend, according to AAA, which this month released its annual Memorial Day travel forecast showing an increase of 3.5 percent in the number of those who will be driving to a holiday destination this year.

As high as it is, though, the U.S. Travel Association says the number could be even higher -- if not for America's failing infrastructure. A new study published by the association this week shows that Americans avoided an estimated 47.5 million auto trips in 2018 because of highway congestion, costing the U.S. economy $30 billion in potential travel spending and 248,000 jobs.

Based on a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. travelers who took at least one day trip or overnight trip by car in 2018, U.S. Travel's survey found that nearly a third of potential road travelers avoided at least one day trip and almost a quarter avoided at least one overnight trip last year because of likely road congestion. Indeed, road congestion is so discouraging, the survey concluded, that with every additional hour of traffic added to a weekend trip, travel demand drops by approximately 18 percent.

"Heading into Memorial Day and the summer travel season, this suite of research shows that: one, the country is becoming less connected because of strained infrastructure; and two, there is a measurable economic cost to that problem," U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a statement.

But the survey bears good news, too: Although infrastructure and traffic problems are hurting the economy generally and the travel industry specifically, Americans are ready and willing to invest in solutions.

For example, U.S. Travel found that two-thirds (66.1 percent) of auto travelers would rather pay an additional $2 to $3 each way to fund transportation projects than sit for an additional 1.5 to 2 hours in traffic each way. Likewise, more respondents (60 percent) said traffic congestion would be a greater deterrent to car travel than a 25-cent increase in gas taxes (40 percent). Furthermore, most auto travelers (80 percent) said additional gas taxes would not negatively impact the frequency of their travel by car.

U.S. Travel didn't just rely on hypotheticals: It told survey respondents that Congress is actually considering proposals to increase taxes and fees on drivers that would result in transportation improvements. Upon hearing that, 64.8 percent of auto travelers said they're willing to support such proposals, and 23 percent that they are unwilling to support such proposals -- but only because there is no assurance that funding would go to projects in their region.

"The infrastructure discussion tends to grind to a political halt when it turns to resources," Dow noted, "so we tested the funding question with polling. The interesting thing we found is that Americans are willing to pay more as long as their money is explicitly used to improve transportation in their region."

Given public support for funding infrastructure improvements in America, U.S. Travel has recommended several policy solutions for lawmakers, including:

• Increase sustainable investment in infrastructure through user fees;

• Authorize a Projects of National and Regional Significance Program that would award discretionary grants to mega-projects that significantly improve the movement of people, and

• Establish a National Travel Mobility Program to provide states with annual funding to invest in next-generation mobility solutions, including passenger rail, emerging technologies and interstate expansion.

Concluded Dow, "Our survey gave travelers a choice: Would you rather pay more, or continue to sit in traffic? Two-thirds said they would rather pay a little more. We hope that gives Congress some encouragement to make difficult decisions, because data shows us that inaction is putting the brakes on connectivity and prosperity."