America is driving its transportation money straight into the ground. According to a new joint report published by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, states are continuing a dangerous trend of focusing the majority of their transportation funding on the expansion of new roadways and too little on the maintenance and repair of existing streets.
Across the country, many states continue to give preference to new roads, while fixing potholes is secondary, despite the fact that potholes are much more likely to drive up annual vehicle maintenance cost for drivers. According to the report, American motorists spend $67 billion annually on vehicle repair and operating costs as a result of driving on poor quality roads while road expansions have relatively marginal benefits.
That “poor” designation of American roads is only increasing. Between the report’s 2009 and 2011 timeframe, only 37 percent of American roadways were in “good” condition, down from 41 percent in 2008. This has resulted in an “enormous liability for state budgets and taxpayers.”
In order to bring the 21 percent of roads currently listed as “poor” up to grade, states would need to spend at least $45 billion annually over the next 20 years –which is three times what is currently spent on both expansion and repair combined.
While California fairs moderately well in the rankings of money spent on road expansion versus repair – 40 percent of all funds going to expansion, 60 percent to repair – it lags behind other more progressive states like Nebraska, North Dakota and New Jersey, all of which put upwards of 90 percent of transportation dollars toward the existing road network allowing them to save money down the road for other budget priorities.
Here in Stockton, the city’s Public Works Department has four major road widening projects in the pipeline: Hammer Lane between Alexandria Place and Thornton Road, going from four to six lanes across; One-and-a-half miles of Thornton Road expanding from two to six lanes; State Route 99 between Arch Road and the Crosstown Freeway, growing four to six lanes; and adding a new HOV and auxiliary lanes to Interstate 5.
The cost of these widening projects ranges from $10.2 million (Hammer Lane) to as much as $214 million (State Route 99) with some projects leveraging local Measure K funds which are derived from a half-cent sales tax throughout San Joaquin County. The report suggests an essential reprioritization of transportation dollars as a way to strategically invest in the existing road network. Local and state politicians need to prioritize maintenance of heavily used streets instead of throwing immediate support to any and all widening projects. Also, better cost-benefit analysis and asset management practices– both of which are heavily underutilized according to the report– would lead to more transparency and better planning for when, where and how much road maintenance would take place.
In addition to improving the quality of existing roads, implementing these recommendations provides a progressive solution for preserving the financial integrity of state budgets. While the upfront costs may seem large, over time the investments in road repair result in huge financial gains by minimizing the amount of maintenance that needed down the road. Costs rise as road conditions are allowed to continue to decline.
According to the report, “States continue to invest in road expansion despite the fact that roads remain in bad condition – and these spending decisions come with serious implications for state transportation budgets.”
Those implications include having to devote substantially more financial resources toward repairing roads once they reach that “poor” designation. For every dollar spent to keep a road in good condition, six to fourteen dollars are needed later to rebuilt deteriorating roads.
As the development dialog continues to shift toward the expansion of transit alternatives and ways to get people out of their cars, reeling back roadway expansion should be included in development conversation. This priority shift presents an opportunity to invest more in the existing infrastructure we have available to us to improve the current transportation experience for all roadway users.