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U.S. PIRG Slams American Transportation Priorities as Roads Fall Apart

» 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)

11 replies on “U.S. PIRG Slams American Transportation Priorities as Roads Fall Apart”

I work in bicycle planning, and all of the publications I see about AASHTO that come through my office seem to be promoting AASHTO’s interest in expanding bicycling infrastructure (I’ve also read about their interest in transit). I might have been led to believe that AASHTO is not as sinister as you point them out to be.

I want to look into this a little further.
Anyway, like in their name, “highway” comes before “and transportation” officials.

Maybe it will take a while to get people on board with rail/buses again. The automobile has had a long run and for the majority of Americans, is a way of life. We are generations seperate from our rail heritage. Getting people to loosen their grip on old philosophies won’t happen overnight.

but cool devices like the 3G iPad or iPhone 3GS/4G and their kind are making driving way less cool for the youngsters out there because they can’t/shouldn’t use them while stuck behind the wheel. Riding mass transit opens up those opportunities.

So wait, it would cost $100 billion per year to maintain our existing road system, and the solution is to expand it? As much as I am an advocate of transit spending and expansion, I would never recommend deferring maintenance on existing highways–maintenance is part of the cost of HAVING a highway. So by all means, let’s start spending $100 billion a year to get our roads up to scratch. I imagine that those costs will drop once maintenance becomes a more regular affair. Meanwhile, why not drop that $375 billion on transit expansion instead? With money like that, public transit could stop being an exclusively urban benefit, and real intercity and regional rail could become a reality.

The federal governemtn should subject funding for new roads to the same evaluation criteria as transit projects, and include how operating expenses will be met.

The bottom line is that we need to invest more in our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, some groups want to use “state of good repair” needs to justify clamping down on road capacity increases, but don’t want to apply the same standards to public transportation. Fact of the matter is that there is not enough funding for state of good repair in transit or highways today, or for needed capacity increases across surface transportation to anticipate population and economic growth to come.

We can’t have the fight over who should get what piece of the pie until the pie is big enough to fight over. Or, in other words, until everyone starts talking about getting Congress and this administration to add SAFETEA-LU reauthorization the legislative priority list, the discussion over who gets what and how much is moot.

The ATM Coalition represents businesses, labor organizations, transit groups, and other transportation stakeholders in calling on Congress to craft comprehensive, multi-year surface transportation legislation that addresses national priorities with national resources. More information on the current state of America’s infrastructure and help with contacting your Members of Congress can be found on the Coalition Web site,

Thank you for touching on the politics of this, Yonah. I live in Minneapolis and drive across the old I-35W bridge probably 200 times before it collapsed. For three legislative sessions before this, the DFL and one Republican tried raising the gas tax. Revenue collected may not have saved the bridge, but monies would have been available to take care of something like that.

The next year we fought tooth and nail to get money for roads, bridges, and transit against Do-Nothing Republicans and won, while four of the Republicans that voted in favor lost their seats. So my question is, “Do ten more bridges need to fall before people realize that they’ll need to pay more in taxes for infrastructure?”

I would support a nationwide moratorium on the use of federal funds for new highway construction or expansion of existing highways and permit only maintenance of existing roads. Then let’s figure out a sane national transportation policy and put our money in that instead of wasting it on more insane highways.

I think it’s that our highways are built to cheap and not built to last in the Show Life After People many of the highway bridges would fall down in less then a hunderd years in that the steel griders in them rust far to easly. The cement is also prone to cracking easly. Oddly though the sold cement arch bridges and the stone arch bridges would last 300 to 500 years. I think we need to use more crossion proof matirals and consder bring back stronger thicker stone and cement artch bridges for some of the highways instead of the steel grider which like to rust.

A lot of highways I seen seem to be getting beaten up and worn out by the huge volumes of traffic they are carrying around. Such as you have a high such as Interstate 95 in Virginia that is six lanes wide and was built around the early 1950’s. While today it is jammed packed with ten to 12 lanes of traffic and still using all the same bridges and flyers and interchanges from the 1950’s. If it was widened to say ten or even in some sections Northern Virginia to 14 lanes in the six lane sections it would most likely where out a lot less with it having the huge volumes of traffic spread out over 10 to 14 lanes then 6 lanes.

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