Smart Growth America’s most recent report, Repair Priorities: Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and repair roads, was released last week in partnership with Taxpayers for Common Sense. Since then, questions about why states invested over half of repair and expansion funds in new roads between 2004 and 2008 have led to concerns about spending priorities and the financial liabilities states are creating by continuing to expand roads at the cost of repair.
Some states’ habit of spending on new road construction rather than on regular repair have left many states’ roads in poor condition, and costs to repair those roads are rising faster than states can address them… “Repair Priorities: Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and improve roads,” examines road conditions and spending priorities nationwide and recommends changes at both the state and federal levels that the organization says can reduce future liabilities, benefit taxpayers and create a better transportation system.
It’s more cost effective to focus on the repairs, even though they may not win mayoral or city council elections…Is there a grand bargain to be struck here? Could a focus–mandated from Congress–on repair and maintenance, instead of new construction, reduce the cost of a surface-transportation bill such that the legislating process could begin in earnest?
Geoff Anderson: Preservation and repair are critical components of reauthorization of our surface transportation bill, and should serve as the foundation of any new bill…As highways deteriorate they become exponentially more expensive to repair. The fiscally responsible approach is to preserve more of our highways in good condition, and to make the needed repairs early—when it costs taxpayers significantly less.
The lack of attention to existing infrastructure is likely to have a long-term cost, well beyond the immediate “savings” of doing nothing. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reports that every dollar spent to keep a road in good condition helps save $6 to $14 that would otherwise be required to rebuild a significantly deteriorated street.
“It just becomes incredibly expensive to fix these roads when they’ve passed a certain state of disrepair,” said Grace Crunican, former Director of the Oregon and Seattle DOTs. “We’re not doing a good job prioritizing what the needs are.”
As of 2008, 43 percent of Oregon’s state-owned major roads were not in good condition….Oregon would need to spend $416 million annually for the next twenty years to get the current backlog of poor-condition major roads into a state of good repair and maintain all state-owned roads in good condition [and] delaying those repairs will only become more costly for the state.
In Washington State, where 44 percent of roads were not in “good” condition, the report estimates that the state would have to spend $426 million a year for the next 20 years to get all roads that are in poor condition in good repair and maintain the roads that are in good condition to keep them at that level. Despite that need, between 2004 and 2008, the state spent 36 percent of its highway funds on road expansion, or about $479 million, and only 14 percent on road repair and maintenance, or about $181 million.
In response to the dire need to address road maintenance and funding issues, the report provides local and national level recommendations. At the state level the report recommends establishing high but achievable condition targets; improving transparency for greater public support; focusing attention on heavily used roads; and considering job creation, return on investment and long-term costs when making spending decisions. At the federal level, the report recommends encouraging state spending patterns that favor repair and preservation, as well as establishing criteria and performance standards for the overall condition of federal-aid highways as methods to improve taxpayer investments and the nation’s transportation network.
The report comes as Congress to begin debating a new Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, transportation bill. Its penny-pinching message could play well with lawmakers who have already expressed concerns with President Obama’s proposal to spend $556 billion over six years on the measure, which funds highways and public transportation.