BY TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE – Anybody that’s owned a house knows that keeping up with the maintenance is critical. Patching a small hole in the roof now is a heck of a lot less expensive than ignoring it and having to replace the entire rotten roof down the road. Unsurprisingly, the same applies to our nation’s infrastructure, and specifically the road network that we rely on to get where we are going and move the goods to get our economy humming.
When a state or city chooses to do the routine repairs and upgrades to a road that keep it in good working order, not only does this preserve the investment that taxpayers made to build the road in the first place, it saves us from more costly repairs later. A report released last week by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Smart Growth America highlights how important it is that these repairs are done, and how badly Congress and most states are failing to make this a priority.
As we highlight, every dollar spent to keep a road in good condition saves between $6 and $14 that would otherwise need to be spent later to rebuild the road if it was allowed to significantly deteriorate. In addition, every new lane mile that states build adds $22,300 annually to the state’s repair spending needs. While this might seem like small change in the context of trillion dollar deficits, with apologies to the late Senator Everett Dirksen, a mile here and a mile there and pretty soon you are talking about real money. In the five years between 2004 and 2008, states added more than 23,000 miles of new roads to the nation’s inventory, increasing the amount needed for repairs by more than $500 million each year. Real money indeed.
Despite the obvious benefits and cost savings of routine upkeep, states continue to spend their federal transportation dollars to build new roads and ignore their mounting backlog of repair needs. From 2004 to 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available), spending to build new roads consumed $22 billion a year, or 57%, of road expenditures while spending on repairs averaged only $16 billion annually, or 43%. Even more striking is that the 23,000 miles of new roads that were built with this $22 billion a year represents only 2% of the nation’s road system. So, 98% of the nation’s roads were left with less than half the resources for repair and upkeep.
This might be justified if the states were keeping our roads in good condition, but that is far from the case. Half of all major state roads were in “fair” or “poor” condition in 2008, and the most recent grade of our nation’s roads from the American Society of Civil Engineers is a “D-minus.” Meanwhile, most states, with only a very few exceptions, continue a pattern of spending that ignores repairs and upkeep. As a result, we can expect worsening conditions in the future.
Against the backdrop of billion-dollar deficits, a $14 trillion national debt, and a transportation program that is starving for funding due to the declining value of the nation’s gasoline tax, the need for prioritization and “doing more with less” has never been more important, and a report we released earlier this year with Reason Foundation and Transportation for America highlights seven ideas that can help Congress get more from our transportation dollars.
Better prioritization isn’t just a good idea for the nation’s roads. A broad array of our infrastructure assets – from dams and levees to bridges and water supply – are in desperate need of repair, and better prioritization means taking care of what we already have, making tough choices about inventory and making good long-term investments. Even beyond issues of infrastructure, Congress must do a better job prioritizing all federal spending, in order that we root out waste and abuse, secure the highest return for taxpayers when appropriate, and cut spending and subsidies that are unneeded or unwarranted — or in today’s tough budget environment — are nice to have but not essential.