New Report: Misplaced highway spending to blame for crumbling roads and bridges

Media Contacts
Jennifer Kim

NJPIRG Law and Policy Center

Trenton, April 28 – Drivers in New Jersey pay an extra $596 per year on car repairs due to highways and bridges in disrepair. Drivers in the New York-Newark metropolitan area spend upwards of $638 extra on car repairs in a year.

A new report released today strongly criticized politicians and policies that favor building new roadways while neglecting existing bridges and roads nationwide. However, unlike many states, the New Jersey Department of Transportation already has an explicit “fix it first” policy and describes projects to expand highway capacity as “a last resort.” In recent years, the department’s spending on widening roads has crept up, with a doubling of road expansion funds the 2010 fiscal year plan, according to transportation watchdogs. But New Jersey remains a leader in focusing its investment to preserve existing assets.

New Jersey has good reason to focus on repair and maintenance. The research paper reports that 82 percent of the state’s roads are in less than good condition and 11 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient, according to federal statistics. A typical New Jersey driver can expect to spend an additional $596 in auto repairs each year due to rough roads. Based on an analysis of the state’s spending of federal transportation dollars between 2006 and 2008, about a $100 million more annually was spent on repairing bridges than creating new capacity.

“New Jersey is better than most states on this issue,” said Allison Cairo of New Jersey PIRG, “but we need to do better. Given the need to stretch every dollar in this budget crisis, the state should be taking a second look at planned widening of toll roads.”

“This report calls into question our nation’s transportation priorities,” said Allison. “It is a waste of scarce resources to continue spending billions on new highways while existing roadways need repair. It’s like adding a guest room on your home when the roof is leaking.”

The report places the blame on powerful special interests and perverse state and federal policies. It points out that, by and large, states generally award major new construction contracts to outside contractors, many of whom lobby for such projects. Routine maintenance and repairs, by contrast, tend to be performed by in-house staff who lack outside influence. Politicians can be susceptible to these pressures because they garner positive political attention from ribbon cuttings for new projects, and mainly hear complaints about closing roads for repair and maintenance, according to the report.

“New Jersey already has strong fix-it-first policies but we need to make sure the rest of the states follow our lead to ensure that no funds are wasted on new projects until we’ve cleared our backlog of needed repair,” said Allison Cairo.