America's Infrastructure Priorities Need Repair

Stephen Lee Davis is the communications director for Smart Growth America and Transportation for America. This article describes a new report by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, titled Repair Priorities 2019.

States have been neglecting basic road repairs in favor of costly road expansion, resulting in worsening pavement condition while also creating expensive new liabilities. Yet the problem is still framed by some (the “Infrastructure Cult”) as primarily about not having enough money.

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There is one magical phrase deployed every single time the conversation turns to infrastructure funding, intended to capture hearts and minds and convince everyone to turn over just a few more of their hard-earned dollars—always spoken with the confidence of knowing that the cause is just: “To fix our crumbling roads and bridges.”

This rhetoric is also step one in a perpetual bait and switch. One look at the condition of our roadways over the last decade shows that the policymakers in Congress who spent the last decade giving state Departments of Transportation ever more flexibility to spend more federal transportation dollars however they want either got hoodwinked, or they were in on the deal.

Money Isn’t the Problem

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Repair Priorities 2019, a new report released today by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, shows that, despite more spending, our roads are still not getting any better.

During a decade when the federal government provided more than $300 billion and billions of additional dollars via the 2009 economic stimulus for states, the percentage of roads nationwide in poor condition actually increased from 2009 to 2017. Our roads got worse not because we lacked money, but because too many states spent that money on building or expanding new roads rather than being good stewards by prioritizing basic maintenance and repair.

While lawmakers and trade groups were eloquently spinning yarns about crumbling roads and bridges, states were spending nearly as much money expanding their road networks as they did repairing their existing roads—$120 billion spent building new lane-miles just from 2009 to 2014.

The Heavy Costs of Expansion

Strong Towns president Charles Marohn and others here have made a compelling case that roads are liabilities that require decades of baked-in maintenance costs. Someone has to cover these costs, but they are rarely taken into account when spending decisions are made. From just 2009 to 2017, we collectively built enough new lane-miles to criss-cross the country 83 times.

Although these 223,000+ miles represent just a three percent increase in the overall road network, just keeping these new lane-miles in good condition will cost us $5 billion more per year. That’s almost 10 percent of the current size of the federal program—a program where shrinking gas tax revenues are already failing to cover the full $61 billion we spend each year.

To put that number in perspective another way, just to maintain this relatively small number of lane miles will require more money than Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas receive combined in federal highway dollars every single year. It’s even more than what mammoth California gets each year.

At what point will we say enough is enough to expansion? The truth is that we’re facing a spending gap that even better priorities might not be able to fix.

Repair Priorities also found that, at all levels of government, we would need to spend nearly $169 billion per year exclusively on road maintenance just to preserve the nation’s roads that are currently in good and fair condition in that acceptable state.

And on top of that, we’d need to spend another $63 billion per year—more than we spend at the federal level each year on transportation overall—to address the backlog of poor roads. (This is one of the huge fiscal benefits of prioritizing repair: fixing “poor” roads is far more expensive than preserving roads in good condition on an ongoing basis.)

Taken together, this means we are currently facing a total need of $231.4 billion per year just to keep our existing road network in acceptable repair. By comparison, all highway capital expenditures across all government units totaled $105.4 billion in 2015, only a portion of which goes to repair. It certainly begs the obvious question: If we devoted 100% of our available funding at the federal, state and local level toward repair, would we have enough to maintain what we’ve built? Savvy Strong Towns readers can #DoTheMath on that one.

A Few Simple Changes Could Make a Big Difference

The most obvious fact—certainly lost on most of the #InfrastructureWeek boosters—is that more funding alone won’t fix our problems. So what would help? Repair Priorities offers four brief solutions.

1. Guarantee measurable outcomes for taxpayers with any new funding.

Look: we simply have to stop asking taxpayers for more funding without some concrete measures to ensure new money will actually make things better. We are demolishing public trust when we promise to fix things with more money, and then fail to do so. So shut off the faucet for additional money. Congress could set concrete goals for repairing roads in poor condition, eliminating the 30,000-plus structurally deficient bridges, or drastically reducing preventable traffic fatalities in the next long-term transportation law—and then hold states accountable for meeting them. These kinds of concrete, tangible goals have been sorely missing from federal transportation policy for far too long.

We also need an inspiring, ambitious vision for the purpose of a federal transportation program in the first place, rather than just a price tag.

2. Require states to repair their existing systems before expanding.

States should be required to dedicate the automatic funding they receive by formula toward repairing and maintaining their existing road networks first. Instead, we have an insane system in which states that do the worst job with caring for their existing assets can simply request more funds to address unmet “needs,” when those “needs” could have been avoided in the first place if they had just spent their money more wisely. No more costly expansions when you’re not caring for your existing system. In my informal conversations over the years with folks not steeped in policy, they’re usually shocked to find out this isn’t a basic requirement.

3. Require agencies to demonstrate they can afford to maintain new roadway capacity projects.

With new federally funded transit projects, agencies have to prove they have sufficient funding to operate and maintain the new line or service, and can do so without shortchanging the rest of their system. We apply a laughably lower standard to the highway program. Currently, Congress is perfectly fine with states building a new road they can’t afford to preserve long-term, even as they are failing to maintain the rest of their system in a good state of repair. Who pays for that short-sightedness? We all do.

We’ve got to wring more efficiency and value out of the roads we’ve already built and require a plan for operating and maintaining anything we build. One way we could do this is with another cue from the transit program: with all highway dollars devoted to repair, Congress could create a competitive program to fund major new highway capacity expansion projects. Want to build a new highway? You’ll have to demonstrate that you can operate and maintain it over its useful life, and that it would produce substantial benefits for the cost.

4. Improve the way we track progress, and require that FHWA publish timely results.

It was pretty astonishing to learn that the most recent publicly available data on state highway capital spending is from 2014—a full five years ago. We don’t know how money was spent over the last five years but there’s an army of folks rallying to pump $2 trillion more into infrastructure. How can the public have any idea whether or not federal spending is accomplishing what was promised without better, more timely data? Any infrastructure plan or new transportation bill should establish stronger reporting requirements to ensure that our investments produce the needed results.

It’s Time for a Better Infrastructure Week

It’s Infrastructure Week once again here in Washington, DC, which, as you know by now, is a week where a long list of lawmakers, trade groups, think tanks, engineering firms, and others with a stake in spending more money on infrastructure talk in lofty yet vague terms about the need to “invest in infrastructure.” The proposals are short on specifics and the terms are vague, but somehow they know that the price tag is $2 trillion.

The public deserves to know what any more money is going to buy us—not just how much money they “need.”

So the next time you hear someone—whether your state DOT head, your representative, your Senator— invoke the need to raise money to “fix our crumbling roads and bridges,” ask them, what are the measurable goals they are going to set for those roads and bridges, and how are they going to measure—and require—progress? Without a convincing answer, it’s best to keep your wallet in your pocket.

About the Author

Stephen Lee Davis is the communications director for Smart Growth America and Transportation for America and has been a Strong Towns reader since the early days.