Fixing old roads instead of building new ones

at 10:26 AM ET, 10/14/2011

(Robert Thomson - The Washington Post)
When it comes to infrastructure spending, politicians tend to prefer gleaming new roads and highways over humdrum repairs. A brand-new highway is exciting: there’s a ribbon-cutting, there’s less need to clog up existing roads with orange cones and repair crews. So it’s not surprising that 57 percent of all state highway funding goes toward new construction, even though this represents just 1.3 percent of the overall system. Yet many transportation reformers have long argued that this bias against fixing what we already have is a terrible way to do business.

Case in point: This week, Taxpayers for Common Sense released a report noting that 11.5 percent of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are “structurally deficient” in some way. That doesn’t mean these bridges will fall down tomorrow (although, in extreme cases, it can mean that; the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis was rated “structurally deficient” just two years before it collapsed in 2007). But it suggests that our priorities might be out of whack, says TCS transportation analyst Erich Zimmermann, especially in an era where funds are tight.

Earlier this year, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn and the University of Minnesota’s David Levinson made a more detailed case for a “fix-it first” strategy for transportation spending. They note that, at the moment, federal highway spending doesn’t usually get subjected to strict cost-benefit analysis, and there’s usually public pressure to build new roads and bridges rather than maintain existing ones. You see this pressure in all sorts of subtle ways: When a highway gets clogged, it’s a lot more palatable to expand lanes rather than, say, put in place congestion fees — even though research has found that widening highways doesn’t do much to alleviate traffic jams.

And there’s a solid economic case for making repairs a priority. As Kahn and Levinson note (see the graph on the right), road pavement tends to deteriorate slowly at first but then accelerate over time. It’s much, much cheaper to repair a road early on, when it’s still in “fair” condition, than when it drops down to “serious” condition. They also cite research by John Fernald showing that, although the initial productivity gains from the Interstate Highway System was high, subsequent expansions have offered a much smaller boost. And that’s to say nothing of data suggesting that poor road conditions are a “significant factor” in one-third of all fatal crashes, and cause extra wear-and-tear on cars.

So is there any chance of things changing? President Obama’s jobs-bill proposal for $50 billion in new infrastructure spending appeared to focus mainly on repairs, providing $27 billion for “rebuilding roads and bridges.” (Although note that the bridge in Kentucky that Obama used as the backdrop for his speech wasn’t structurally deficient at all — it’s being slated for expansion.) But the real question mark will be in the big multiyear highway spending bills that the House and Senate take up later this year. Although Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced a measure to prioritize repairs and force states to set targets for maintenance, it’s not clear that that will get anywhere. The allure of new roads and bridges can be hard to break.

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