February 3, 2013

America's highway bill coming due

Experts agree that many states spent too much on building highways and too little on fixing them.

McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

Special-interest push for South Carolina interstate hits roadblock
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The U.S. highway system is crumbling physically and financially due to a politically driven road-building binge.

Steve Jessmore/Myrtle Beach Sun News/MCT

The Department of Transportation long ago ceded control over most highway decision-making to the states without well-defined national transportation goals, leaving a large portion of federal money up for grabs for those with the most clout.

Like the Roman Empire, "civilizations fall because they don't maintain their infrastructure," said David Burwell, the director of the climate and energy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"Everybody likes to build things, but nobody likes to maintain them," he said. "We paid for them once. Why should we pay for them again?"

When Al Biehler became Pennsylvania's transportation secretary a decade ago, he found that the state had been spending more on expanding its highway system than it had on keeping it in good repair.

"If you don't put money into fixing things," Biehler said, "there will be more things to fix."

So he did the unthinkable: He put the brakes on some projects, risking the wrath of highway contractors and the state lawmakers who supported them.

"Projects that we knocked off the program, some of them weren't terrible projects," he said. "I just felt we couldn't afford them."

According to the National Center for Pavement Preservation, a research lab for road-building materials at the Michigan State University engineering school, every dollar spent to maintain a road in the first 15 years of its life saves $6 to $14 in maintenance costs after 20 years.

The Federal Highway Administration doesn't require states to put money into repairing roads before building new ones.

Pennsylvania was spending about as much of its federal funding on expansion as it was on maintenance in 2004, according to federal data reviewed by McClatchy. By 2011, the state was spending about four times as much on repairs, and it was still struggling to keep up.

The Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee reported in 2010 that the state needed an additional $2.1 billion a year to properly maintain its highways and bridges.

"More than half of our bridges have reached their intended life-span date," said Barry LePatner, a New York construction lawyer who's cataloged nearly 8,000 of the nation's most troublesome spans. "Without maintenance money, cost of repair equals cost of replacement after a certain period of time."

Some budget watchdogs were encouraged that the most recent federal transportation bill, MAP-21, which Congress approved last summer, pushes states to develop performance standards for federal highway spending that result in the greatest improvement to roads and bridges.

But it's too soon to know whether the measures will have any impact, and the legislation expires at the end of next year. Meanwhile, states face tough choices. Emil Frankel, who was assistant secretary for transportation policy under President George W. Bush and is a former Connecticut transportation commissioner, said the country needed to establish priorities.

"Thirty years ago, 'like it' might have been good enough," said Frankel, who's now a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a research center in Washington. " 'We'll do it because we like it.' We can't afford to do that anymore."

It's been 20 years since Congress raised the gasoline tax. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax has lost a third of its buying power to inflation and rising construction costs.

The tax feeds the federal Highway Trust Fund, which long has paid for part of highway building and repairs in all 50 states.

The fund used to carry a surplus, but lawmakers have bailed it out since 2008 by tapping the Treasury for $50 billion.

 

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