In a perfect world, it would be torn up — the asphalt and concrete, and the bed of crushed stone below — right down to the bare earth. From that fresh start a new and stable highway would grow. But this is the Beltway, and closing down whole sections of it would tie one of the most congested regions in the nation into a Gordian knot.
“With the older base layers under the asphalt, the surface is not able to absorb the pounding the way it used to,” said Doug Simmons, deputy highway administrator in Maryland, home to almost two-thirds of the 64-mile Beltway and to the more serious of the highway’s problems. “It is at that 50-year age point, which is too close to [the end of its life]. It’s a good example of the challenges we’re going to be facing not only in Maryland but other places in the country.”
Ultimately, the Beltway will not be allowed to die. It is too central to life in this region and to the national highway system. But it stands as a symbol, one roadway among the tens of thousands at the end of a long and fruitful life span into which 21st century America was born.
Now, 210 million U.S. drivers, and the commerce on which they rely, are riding on baby-boom-generation roadways, which like the boomers themselves are no longer so steady and sound.
As reality sinks in, states have moved to raise taxes to fix their roads before it’s too late.
Maryland and Virginia just passed tax increases to address transportation needs, high among them deteriorating highways such as the Beltway. But it will take time more than money to tackle the Beltway’s worst sections, because simply closing several lanes for months would have nightmarish consequences.
The best of roads might last 40 or 50 years, perhaps longer if set in a forgiving climate. But once age gets the best of a road, smacking a fresh coat of asphalt on it is like pinning leaves on a dead tree.
Simply put, the underbed of a roadway develops potholes very much like the ones seen on the surface. That process of erosion advances with the age of the road, and new asphalt or concrete becomes a waste of time and money.
“There’s too much money spent on just patching, on the quick fix, rather than the long term, and eventually it’s going to catch up on us,” said Edward G. Rendell, former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor who now heads an infrastructure advocacy group.
It’s catching up now.
Nearly a third of the nation’s major roads need significant repair or replacement, with a far higher percentage in the busiest urban areas. In Washington and its suburbs, it soars to 62 percent.
Forty-two percent of urban roadways suffer from congestion, costing an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and gasoline each year, according to a study released earlier this month by the American Society of Civil Engineers.