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Road Work Ahead:Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges
by Travis Madsen and Benjamin Davis, Frontier Group, and Phineas Baxandall, Ph.D., U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Over the last 50 years, America has built roads and bridges at a pace and scale that dwarfs most of the rest of the world. We’ve built a national highway network like no other, with more than 45,000 miles of interstate highway and 575,000 highway bridges.
Now, much of that system is showing its age – and as maintenance needs continue to grow, we are falling farther behind. Across the nation, drivers face more than 150,000 miles of roads in less than good condition and more than 70,000 decaying bridges. Neglected maintenance of roads and bridges acts as a constant drain on our economy and a scourge on our quality of life. Rough and rutted roads cause accidents, damage vehicles, trigger traffic jams that lead to countless hours of delay, and waste money Americans need for other expenses. On some occasions – such as the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota – it can lead to profound tragedy.
Why are America’s roads and bridges in such terrible shape? And who or what is to blame?
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. Political forces often undermine a strong commitment to maintenance. Members of Congress, state legislators and local politicians thrive on ribbon-cuttings. Powerful special interests push for new and bigger highways. Meanwhile, federal and state policies – which should provide strong guidance in the wise use of taxpayer dollars – often fail to achieve the proper balance between building new infrastructure and taking care of what we already have built.
To fix our roads and bridges, America first must fix our transportation policies. To counteract the tendencies to neglect repair and maintenance, we must adopt strong “fix it first” rules that give priority to maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, set national goals for the condition of our transportation system, and hold state governments accountable for achieving results.
America’s roads and bridges are in disrepair.
- According to the Federal Highway Administration, 45 percent (or more than 150,000 miles) of federal highways and major roads were in poor, mediocre or fair condition as of 2008. Metropolitan areas tend to have the roughest roads. In 2008, nearly two-thirds of urban roadways offered a poor, mediocre or fair ride. Major cities – including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City and New Orleans – had the worst road conditions. Typical drivers in these cities pay as much as $750 per year in extra vehicle maintenance costs due to rough road conditions.
- The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs – an average of $335 per motorist.
- The United States Department of Transportation rates 12 percent (or 71,000) of the nations’ bridges as “structurally deficient,” which means that a bridge has a major defect in its support structure or its deck is cracking and deteriorating. In some states, more than 20 percent of bridges are structurally deficient.
- Generally, engineers build bridges in the United States for a useful life of 50 years. The average age of America’s bridges is now 43 years, with 185,000 over 50 years old. By 2030, that number could double.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the condition of the nation’s bridges a “C” grade and roadways a near-failing “D-“ grade in 2009. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that merely sustaining the condition and performance of the federal highway system would require investing more than $100 billion per year – almost $30 billion more than current spending levels.
Special interest pressure tilts the playing field toward the construction of new and ever-wider highways at the expense of repair and maintenance.
- By and large, states award new contracts for major construction projects, but perform ongoing maintenance in-house. As a result, there is a strong outside political pressure for new bridge or highway construction, but little outside pressure for preventative maintenance and regular repairs.
- The highway lobby is a powerful political force that stands to profit from government spending on new highways. In 2008, highway interests gave more than $130 million to candidates for state and federal office. According to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, more than 1,800 different special interest groups are vying to influence the contents of the next transportation authorization bill. Many of the real-estate or construction interests involved have specific new construction projects they are attempting to move forward.
- Since 1985, the nation has built enough roadways to circle the globe more than five times. On average from 2006 to 2008, states spent more than $8 billion in federal capital annually to build new roads or add highway capacity. In contrast, states spent $4.8 billion in federal dollars per year on repairing deficient bridges.
- Despite deep maintenance backlogs, states in 2009 committed almost a third of federal stimulus funds – $6.6 billion – to new capacity road and bridge projects rather than to repair and other preservation projects. Kentucky directed 88 percent of its stimulus funds to new roads, rather than fixing the 39 percent of its roads that are in poor condition, or its 573 structurally deficient bridges. Building new roads will only increase the state’s maintenance burden in the future.
U.S. transportation policy fails to properly emphasize highway and bridge maintenance. Responsibility for the road and bridge crisis begins at the top, with federal transportation policies that allocate vast amounts of money to the states with little direction and no accountability.
- Spending is not targeted toward specific goals. Federal highway programs largely dole out money to states based on standardized funding formulas and with no prioritization of projects based on their importance. States are guaranteed to receive funds totaling a minimum of 92 percent of the federal gas taxes collected in their state, regardless of whether the state spends the money wisely or in a way that furthers the interest of the nation as a whole. Moreover, federal funds designated specifically for maintenance are given out with no accountability for actually achieving specific maintenance standards.
- There is little accountability for proper maintenance. In theory, federal law authorizes the U.S. Transportation Secretary to withhold funds from states that fail to properly maintain roads and bridges; but the law does not define “proper maintenance” and the power is virtually never used.
- States can divert maintenance money to other uses. States can, and often do, shift federal money intended for maintenance to other projects – including the construction of new roads and bridges. Between 2005 and 2007, states redirected one out of every 10 federal dollars intended for bridge repair to other purposes. In the three years prior to the I-35 bridge collapse, Minnesota diverted more than 50 percent of its federal bridge funding away from bridge repair and maintenance.
- Perverse incentives undermine progress. States receive more federal bridge maintenance and repair money when they face higher bills for bridge repair. The system inadvertently encourages states to neglect bridge maintenance and shift the money to other uses: Not only do federal funding formulas fail to require states to achieve specific targets for bridge maintenance, but fixing bridges actually could reduce the amount of federal money received in future years.
Congressional earmarks – in which members of Congress designate funding for specific projects – further tilt spending away from maintenance.
- The most notorious transportation earmark in recent history – for construction of the $223 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska – was to have been partially paid for with funds from the federal Highway Bridge Program, which cannot normally be spent to build new bridges.
- The 2005 transportation law created a program intended to identify and fund transportation projects of “national and regional significance” on a competitive basis, based on a set of objective criteria. However, members of Congress used earmarks to predetermine the winners of the grants, bypassing any national system of prioritization.
- In 2008, Congress directed just 10 percent of earmarked funds in the annual transportation appropriations bill to repair or maintain a bridge, tunnel, or overpass. For example, the delegation from Mississippi secured funding for 19 earmarked projects at a cost of $29 million, and despite having a backlog of over 3,000 structurally deficient bridges in the state, none of their earmarks went to bridge repair.
State transportation funding policies are often similarly short-sighted, focusing on the creation of politically popular new highways rather than maintaining existing roads and bridges.
- According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, state transportation agencies tend to weigh political support and public opinion more heavily than cost-benefit calculations when deciding how to spend federal transportation dollars. As a result, state transportation agencies can neglect projects – like ongoing maintenance – that can extend the life and minimize the life-cycle costs of roads and bridges.
- Some states underfund road and bridge repair in metropolitan areas, even though they are home to more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and economic output and tend to have the greatest needs. These states, like the federal government, dole out transportation money partially based on geographic shares rather than focusing funds on the most important needs and opportunities. Georgia, for example, divides the bulk of its transportation dollars by congressional district, leading the state to spend 50 percent more per capita on areas outside metropolitan Atlanta than inside, according to analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
- States bend the definition of “maintenance” projects to include road or bridge expansion, further reducing the amount of money available for true maintenance. In Wisconsin, for example, a project to devote $1.9 billion to repair a 38-mile section of Interstate 94 actually expanded the number of lanes on the road from four to eight. The state is demolishing every overpass bridge along the segment and building new ones to accommodate the new lanes, despite the fact that only one was structurally deficient. As a result, millions of dollars will actually go toward the construction of new infrastructure rather than repair.
Spending more money on transportation won’t fix America’s roads and bridges without a top-to-bottom shift in funding priorities and policies. Specific recommendations include:
- Prioritize highway and bridge maintenance and repair. States should be held accountable for properly maintaining roads and bridges, and should be required to demonstrate progress to the public according to specific, measurable benchmarks.
- Reorganize federal highway programs to focus exclusively on either maintenance or new construction. One program should cover all new infrastructure construction, ensuring that new highway or bridge projects undergo rigorous evaluation and prioritization at the federal level – much like the New Starts program for public transportation projects. Another program should consolidate infrastructure preservation efforts to better dedicate resources to repair and maintenance.
- Require states receiving federal aid to plan for future maintenance before building new roads. States receiving federal transportation funds should calculate and publicly report the 10-, 20- and 50-year maintenance costs of all new or improved infrastructure projects and demonstrate that such funds will be available over the lifespan of the infrastructure. Such requirements are commonplace in state applications for federal transit investments.
- Measure performance the right way. The federal government should establish performance measures connected to national goals that drive investment decisions, such as increasing the fraction of roads in good condition or reducing the number of vehicles traveling over structurally deficient bridges. States should report progress to the public annually.
- Reward states for good performance on national objectives. States already receive bond ratings for how well they act to meet future obligations to investors who buy their assets. By that same principle, the U.S. Department of Transportation could develop a system to rate states based on their progress, or lack thereof, on preventative maintenance, deferred maintenance, and resources dedicated to repair. States with unsatisfactory ratings would be prohibited from transferring funds out of federal repair programs for other purposes, and would risk losing their full federal funding over time.
- States, too, should create fix it first policies. Every state should adopt Fix it First policies analogous to those in Maryland, New Jersey and Illinois, requiring state DOTs to focus on the rehabilitation of existing facilities before building new highways.