Making the most of limited transportation dollars: WYDOT does it right

State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) across the country face tightening budgets, and one DOT recently stepped up to make the most of the funds it has.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) has positioned itself responsibly for the future. On November 16, the agency announced it will stop approving highway expansion projects and will focus resources toward repair of the state’s existing road system. This announcement comes just months after the publication of Repair Priorities, a report by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, which made recommendations along these lines.

In an interview with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, WYDOT Director John Cox said, “We’re beginning to look at our transportation system from a maintenance perspective rather than [as] a highway improvement program.” WYDOT is one of many DOTs across the country struggling to prevent its roads from deteriorating under current fiscal pressures, but one of few state DOTs to make a public commitment to prioritizing its existing roads. WYDOT’s decision to halt costly expansion projects will go a long way in preserving Wyoming’s roads in a state of good repair, will reduce the scale of future road maintenance costs for the state and will hopefully serve as an example to other state DOTs as they continue to make tough decisions about how to allocate funds.

WYDOT’s choice is also a smart economic move for the state. Investing in road repair is a great job creator. Analysis by Smart Growth America found that funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act spent on road repair projects created 16% more jobs per dollar than funds spent on expansion projects. Prioritizing existing roads will also save Wyoming drivers money: smooth, well-maintained roads are gentler on tire suspensions and allow drivers to get better gas mileage. In fact, rough roads can add an average of $355 annually to the cost of owning a car.

While many state DOTs across the country are facing fiscal crises, too many fail to evaluate which investments will actually provide the state and taxpayers with the greatest return. Continuing to fund costly road expansion projects in the face of mounting budgetary pressures doesn’t just ensure that states will have massive maintenance price tags in the future, it also fails to protect the hefty investments states have already made by letting existing roads fall into disrepair.

If more states used the kind of clear-eyed analysis that Wyoming has done, they would almost certainly focus more on fixing existing roads and bridges. With rigorous analysis, some few new projects might be found worthy, but with an awareness of current repair needs and future new costs, there would be far fewer new projects than we see today.

State DOTs will need to be smarter about how to get the greatest economic value out of their investments. Repair Priorities provides examples of smart spending strategies for state DOTs and assesses how effectively other DOTs are using their limited resources.