U.S. roads are long in the tooth, short on repairs

| Thursday, April 29, 2010

That old gray thoroughfare ain’t what she used to be. The song and dance over road and bridge repairs seems to go on forever while the actual work keeps getting put off.

Well, it’s time to end the procrastination and get some work done, says the Public Interest Research Group in a new report titled “Road Work Ahead: Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges.”

The report’s author, PIRG Senior Analyst Phineas Baxandall, says governments should look no further than the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota to see an example of what can happen if repairs are put off too long.

“This sounds so common sense, it’s difficult to even say. At a minimum, you should not be moving money out of your fix-it programs until the stuff is fixed. Right now, that happens all the time,” Baxandall told Land Line Magazine.

“States have hundreds, some of them thousands, of structurally deficient bridges, but they are allowed to and do move up to half of their federal bridge money out into other programs despite the fact that they haven’t fixed their bridges.”

The U.S. has 71,000 structurally deficient bridges in dire need of repair or replacement. That’s about 12 percent of the 575,000 highway bridges.

Getting the current system up to snuff will require a fundamental shift in policy, Baxandall says. He cites a recent state law passed in Maryland that keeps maintenance money from being diverted to other programs such as new construction.

“It’s the notion that before you build new facilities, you should make sure you’re taking good care of what you already have,” Baxandall said.

“If you have a house that’s got a leaky roof, you don’t want to be putting your resources into building the guest-room expansion; you want to be fixing the leaky roof. We have a lot of leaky roofs.”

A summary of PIRG’s findings:

  • Infrastructure spending is not specifically set aside for maintenance, and there is little or no accountability for maintenance;
  • States are allowed to and do divert money to other uses;
  • Poor road conditions cost motorists $67 billion each year in vehicle maintenance – about $335 per motorist;
  • The average age of U.S. bridges is 43, while the design life of most bridges is 50 years;
  • Governments focus on new construction rather than maintaining current systems;
  • 1,800 different special interest groups are vying to influence the next highway bill;
  • Lobbyists from highway and construction groups spent $130 million in 2008; and
  • Fixing the problem requires a top-to-bottom shift in priorities and policies;

 

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– By David Tanner, associate editor
david_tanner@landlinemag.com