U.S. Road Expansion Costing Taxpayers

A new report by Smart Growth America found that between 2004 and 2008, states spent $37.9 billion annually on repair and expansion of roads and highways. Of these funds, 57 percent went to road widening and new road construction—just 1.3 percent of roads. Photo by Indiana Public Media.

“Every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition avoids $6-14 needed later to rebuild the same road once it has deteriorated significantly,” says the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. A smaller initial investment in renewed priorities of road maintenance actively reduces the scale of future costs, found a new report by Smart Growth America. “Rehabilitating a road that has deteriorated is substantially more expensive than keeping that road in good condition,” the report says.

In collaboration with Taxpayers For Common Sense, an independent and non-partisan group working to increase transparency and eliminate wasteful spending, Smart Growth America released “Repair Priorities: Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and improve roads.” The report found that between 2004 and 2008, states spent 57 percent of total road construction and preservation funds on constructing new roads, or 1 percent of the nation’s roads. “States together added 23,300 lane-miles of major roads and spent more to build these new miles than they did to repair and maintain all 1.9 million lane-miles of their existing highways,” the report says.

“Decades of disproportionate spending by states on road expansion at the expense of regular repair have left many state roads in poor condition,” the report continues. The poor spending decisions and uneven distribution of funds have also been costly to taxpayers, Smart Growth America adds. “Though much of the funding for repair and preservation comes from state and local budgets, billions of federal dollars are also spent each year on these roads. Federal funds built a large portion of these major state roads, and allowing states to under-invest in repair and preservation greatly reduces the value of these federal investments.”

The report also includes a series of 50 profiles with detailed information about each state’s transportation spending decisions. Based on the findings, between 2004 and 2008, South Carolina spent 41 percent of its highway capital budget on road expansion, while dedicating only 18 percent on repair and preservation. During this time, South Carolina saw the good condition of its roads drop by 13 percent. On the other hand, South Dakota spent 78 percent of its highway capital budget on repair and preservation, increasing the percentage of its major roads in good condition by 16 percent, the report claims.

And although a review of each state’s pavement performance goals reveals that many states are in one form or another meeting their established performance measures, the nation as a whole has received a D- for road conditions by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

According to the report:

“Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia do not have benchmarks for pavement conditions, which means they lack an important way to set and evaluate goals for ideal road conditions. Alabama, Connecticut, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have qualitative performance standards but do not have specific quantitative benchmarks. In addition 15 states have established quantifiable performance targets for a minimum percentage of pavement to be ‘fair’ or ‘not poor.’ This is not the best way to measure performance, however, as this category includes roads in good condition as well as roads that are only one pothole away from being in poor condition.”

In response to the dire need to address road maintenance and funding issues, the report provides local and national level recommendations. At the state level the report recommends establishing high but achievable condition targets; improving transparency for greater public support; focusing attention on heavily used roads; and considering job creation, return on investment and long-term costs when making spending decisions.

At the federal level, the report recommends encouraging state spending patterns that favor repair and preservation, as well as establishing criteria and performance standards for the overall condition of federal-aid highways as methods to improve taxpayer investments and the nation’s transportation network.

Download the report here.



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