THE BLOG

In The Public Interest: Fixing Our "Shiny New Toys"

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Every parent knows this one - you walk into a room and see your child playing carelessly with a new toy. Invariably, you warn: "If you break that, I'm not buying you a new one!"

For decades now, federal and state transportation decision-making has been geared toward buying shiny new toys... not at taking good care of the ones we already have. Too often, no one has taken responsibility for insisting that our nation's roads and bridges be scrupulously maintained.

As a result, America's roadways are in shameful condition. They cause accidents, damage vehicles, lead to expensive traffic delays and to expensive reconstruction that could have been more cheaply avoided.

As our new report - Road Work Ahead - released on April 28 describes:

  • The U.S. Department of Transportation rates 12 percent (or 71,000) of the nations' bridges as "structurally deficient."
  • Bridges generally have a useful life of 50 years. The average age is now 43 years, with 185,000 over 50 years old. By 2030, that number could double.
  • The 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota and the 2009 closing of the Crown Point Bridge linking Vermont and upstate New York show that critical transportation infrastructure can outright fail without adequate inspection and maintenance.
  • According to the Federal Highway Administration, 26 percent (or 90,000 miles) of federal highways and major roads are in less than good condition.
  • Metropolitan areas tend to have the roughest roads. Typical drivers in large cities pay as much as $750 per year in extra vehicle maintenance costs due to rough road conditions.

Despite these urgent needs, public officials often put off repairs or delay preventative maintenance, opting instead to build new and wider highways. Since 1985, the nation has built enough roadways to circle the globe more than five times. Between 2006 and 2008, states spent an average of $15 billion federal dollars per year to build new roads, or rebuild roads with additional lanes, according to the Federal Highway Administration .

Why does America tilt toward Third World disrepair while wasting precious dollars on new lanes and highways?

Powerful special interests and perverse policies deserve much of the blame.

By and large, states award outside contracts for major new construction projects, but perform ongoing maintenance in-house. In other words, strong outside interest groups benefit from and can exert political pressure for new bridge or highway construction, but little outside pressure exists to advocate for much-needed preventative maintenance and regular repairs.

The highway lobby is a powerful political force that stands to profit from government spending on new highways. In 2008, highway interests gave more than $130 million to candidates for state and federal office, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity which found more than 1,800 different special interest groups vying to influence the contents of the next federal transportation bill. Many of the real-estate or construction interests involved have specific new construction projects they are attempting to move forward.

Federal and state officials are susceptible to this pressure. Projects for new and wider highways feature high-profile launches and ribbon cuttings. Roadways sometimes even get named after politicians who secure their funding. Maintenance and repair projects lack that glory. They often address problems that haven't even happened yet.

Instead of policies to counteract this inherent bias, existing transportation rules tend to make the situation worse.

  • Federal transportation policies allocate vast amounts of money to the states with little direction and no accountability.
  • The small portion of federal funds designated specifically for maintenance is given out with no accountability for actually achieving results.
  • States routinely shift federal money intended for maintenance to construction of new roadways.
  • Due to perverse formulas, fixing bridges would actually reduce the amount of federal money received in future years while allowing them to get worse can increase federal funds.

State transportation funding policies are often similarly short-sighted. States especially underfund road and bridge repair in urban areas - despite the fact that metropolitan areas house more than 80 percent of the nation's population and economic output and tend to have the greatest needs.

Like the federal government, states tend to dole out transportation money based on geographic shares rather than focusing funds on the most important needs and opportunities. Only 37 percent of major roadways in metropolitan areas are deemed in good shape by inspectors, compared to 61 percent of such roads in rural areas.

Spending more money using the same old rules of the game won't solve America's transportation problems. We need a top-to-bottom shift in funding priorities and policies which prioritizes "fix-it-first" rather than buying more "shiny new toys."