» State DOTs spend too many of their funds on road construction, when they really should be focusing on maintenance.
A year ago, the Federal Transit Administration released a report on the state of good repair of the nation’s transit agencies. The study articulated a massive need for maintenance work on the country’s rail systems and suggested that the federal government contribute an additional four billion dollars annually to its fixed guideway modernization program, which funds capital improvements for existing transit systems. In the ensuing months, the Congress made no such effort.
It’s unsurprising, then, that the American highway network is no better off. After more than half a century of major federal investments in new roads for the Interstate Highway System, there is plenty of repair to be done. According to a new report from U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), 150,000 miles of road, including 45% of federal highways, are in less than good condition, as are 71,000 bridges, about 12% of all spans. Yet the federal government is investing far less than necessary to bring those rights-of-way up to par, and states are often working actively against policies that promote maintenance rather than new construction.
The Federal Highway Administration has suggested that the U.S. would have to spend $100 billion or more annually to maintain roads at their existing quality levels. That’s $30 billion more than is spent on roads altogether today, much of which goes to new highways.
For American transportation advocates, the study’s conclusions should serve as prime ground for a reevaluation of current spending priorities. Nevertheless, lobbying groups such as AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) continue to promote road expansion as the key to the country’s transportation future. But do we have the money to maintain our existing roads even as we build new ones?
U.S. PIRG’s report, Road Work Ahead, puts the country’s transportation conditions in context: “One thing is for sure: the deterioration of our roads and bridges is no accident. Rather, it is the direct result of countless policy decisions that put other considerations ahead of the pressing need to preserve our investment in the highway system.” Authors Travis Madsen, Benjamin Davis, and Phineas Baxandall highlight two principal problems: A political advantage in focusing on ribbon cutting rather than maintenance and a lack of federal oversight to ensure a state of good repair.
These structural problems are compounded by the fact that maintenance costs increase exponentially the longer they’re delayed. It’s better to perform constant, cheap check-ups than to have once-in-twenty-years surgery.
But politicians see immediate benefit from building new roads. More capacity is visible and seen as positive, compared to the often-intrusive work required to maintain existing highways. Meanwhile, while states generally perform maintenance using in-house workers, they typically contract out for new roads; it’s no coincidence that private highway interests gave more than $130 million to state and federal candidates in 2008. The lack of evaluation from the federal government for new road construction — unlike, for instance, the transit New Starts major capital works program — means that there is no interference from above, so a new road will be built if a state decides it wants it.
Meanwhile, though the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has the theoretical right to withhold federal highway funds if states fail to maintain roads, that power is not exercised frequently, according to the report. This means that the DOT will continue to transfer billions of dollars every year to states for new highways even as roads fall apart.
For the study’s authors, a “fix it first” policy is necessary. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.
Nevertheless, AASHTO, which represents the state departments of transportation, has begun a campaign for massive road expansion. The lobby, which is led by transportation officials from Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah (guess their primary interests), suggests that “Even with strategies to reduce traffic and improve transit, highway system expansion is critical.”
AASHTO’s own report on the future of American transportation, released on Monday, suggests $375 billion in highway investments over the next six years, much of which would be used for the construction of new roads. Following the guidance of its members, AASHTO argues that 90% of funds should be simply transferred to states through a formula without guidance from Washington.
This strategy is disappointing from two perspectives: one, it is clearly focused on system expansion, rather than a renewal of the existing infrastructure in spite of the maintenance backlog highlighted by the U.S. PIRG report; two, though AASHTO claims to be interested in shifting trips to transit, it would spend almost four times as much on roads as public transportation.
What’s perhaps most problematic about AASHTO’s strategy is that it argues that urban areas, more than rural sections of the country, should focus on system expansion. It apparently hasn’t occurred to the organization’s leadership that those places are the prime ground for transit growth, or that the most congested metropolitan areas (L.A., New York, Chicago, and Washington) have little room for more roads. U.S. PIRG’s conclusion that metropolitan areas suffer far more than rural zones from poorly maintained roadways suggests that the focus there should be reconstruction, not new construction.
Like it or not, the United States has a limited pot of transportation dollars. It would be a pity to see so much money be poured into new highways as the old ones rot away.
Image above: Pavement, from Flickr user sfllaw (cc)