Misplaced Highway Spending to Blame for Crumbling Roads and Bridges

Media Contacts
Jason Donofrio

Arizona PIRG Education Fund

According to Road Work Ahead: Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges, a new report by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, across the nation, drivers face more than 90,000 miles of crumbling highways and more than 70,000 decaying bridges.  The report states that neglected maintenance of roads and bridges acts as a constant drain on our economy and a scourge on our quality of life.

Diane E. Brown, Executive Director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, stated, “Rough and rutted roads cause accidents, damage vehicles, trigger traffic jams that lead to countless hours of delay, and waste money Arizonans need for other expenses.  To fix our roads and bridges, Arizona and America must adopt strong ‘fix-it first’ rules that give priority to maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, set goals for the condition of our transportation system, and hold state governments accountable for achieving results.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • Drivers in Arizona pay an average of an extra $207 per year on car repairs because of highways and bridges in disrepair. 31 percent of Arizona’s major roads have fallen into less than good condition and Arizona contains 210 structurally-deficient bridges.  Despite these problems, the state diverts over a quarter billion dollars a year instead to building new or wider highways. Arizona spends an average of 27 times as many federal dollars on new roadway construction than on bridge repair or maintenance. This ratio is more than double the next closest state. Only nine states spend less per square foot on repairing their backlog of structurally-deficient bridges.
  • The Federal Highway Administration has declared 26 percent (or 90,000 miles) of federal highways and major roads were in poor or mediocre condition as of 2008.
  • The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs – an average of $335 per motorist.
  • The United States Department of Transportation rates 12 percent (or 71,000) of the nations’ bridges as “structurally deficient,” which means that a bridge has a major defect in its support structure or its deck is cracking and deteriorating.
  • Generally, engineers build bridges in the United States for a useful life of 50 years. The average age of America’s bridges is now 43 years, with 185,000 over 50 years old. By 2030, that number could double.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded the condition of the nation’s bridges a “C” grade and roadways a near-failing “D-“ grade in 2009. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that merely maintaining the condition and performance of the federal highway system would require investing more than $100 billion per year – double current spending.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund recommends the following:

  • Make highway and bridge maintenance a state and national priority. States should be held accountable for properly maintaining roads and bridges, and should be required to demonstrate progress to the public according to specific, measurable benchmarks.
  • Require states receiving federal aid to plan for future maintenance before building new roads. States receiving federal transportation funds should calculate and publicly report the 10-, 20- and 50-year maintenance costs of all new or improved infrastructure projects and develop a plan demonstrating that such funds will be available over the lifespan of the infrastructure. Such requirements are commonplace in state applications for federal transit investments.
  • Measure performance the right way.  The federal government should establish performance measures connected to national goals that drive investment decisions, such as increasing the fraction of roads in good condition or reducing the number of vehicles traveling over structurally deficient bridges. States should report progress to the public annually.
  • Reward states for good performance on national objectives. States already receive bond ratings for how well they act to meet future obligations to investors who buy their assets. By that same principle, the U.S. Department of Transportation could develop a system to rate states based on their progress, or lack thereof, on preventative maintenance, deferred maintenance, and resources dedicated to repair. States with unsatisfactory ratings would be prohibited from transferring funds out of federal repair programs for other purposes, and would risk losing their full federal funding over time.
  • States, too, should create fix-it-first policies – Arizona and every state in the nation should adopt Fix-it First policies requiring state DOTs to focus on the rehabilitation of existing facilities before building new highways.

“To continue spending billions on new highways while existing roadways need repair is like adding a guest room on your home when the roof is leaking,” Brown added. “Arizona should establish strong fix-it-first policies that ensure that no funds are wasted on new projects until our state has cleared the backlog of needed repair.”

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