It’s no secret infrastructure in the United States is in need of improvement. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card gave the United States roadway system a “D” grade. This comes as no surprise, as nearly 20 percent of United States highways are considered to be in poor condition. Traffic fatalities, which have declined over the past decade, rose by 7 percent between 2014 and 2015. Without an increased emphasis on maintenance projects, the situation will continue to get worse.
Maintenance projects and repairs are less expensive than new construction projects. A primary incentive for performing maintenance over new construction is the proof that people regularly drive on existing roadways in poor condition. There is no guarantee new construction will be used frequently enough to cover the cost of building it.
New construction also requires a greater number of resources and materials than are needed to maintain existing infrastructure. Cities could use the same amount of material and resources to provide more benefit for maintenance, as opposed to new construction. Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation and local government representatives have little incentive to focus on maintenance for the following reasons.
State and local government representatives have focused their attention and funding on new construction projects which bring more media attention and draw more community interest. Routine maintenance and repairs don’t generate the same amount of public excitement. Visually, it is more appealing to expand existing highways subject to high volumes of traffic and congestion, even though this does very little to improve the situation.
Increased Individual Costs
Rough roadways are tough on vehicles. Drivers spending more time on rougher roads generally require more regular and frequent vehicle maintenance. One method for increasing roadway longevity — and thereby slowing the roadway aging process — would be to maintain roads so they stay smooth. Smooth pavement lasts 10 to 25 percent longer than rougher pavement. With enough pressure on the power that be, a taxpayer can get road maintenance on a municipal to-do list at regular intervals, which would likely reduce the municipal and taxpayer’s costs over time.
Poor Spending Choices
The Department of Transportation has no federally imposed restrictions on how they allocate funding for new construction projects compared to maintenance projects. Historically, they have spent nearly 50 percent of their funding on new construction, which accounts for only 1 percent of the total roadways in the United States. This means the other 99 percent of existing infrastructure must be maintained with only 50 percent of the remaining funding.
It will cost nearly $2 trillion over the next 10 years to perform all the necessary maintenance to bring the existing roadway system into good condition. To address this need, the infrastructure budget could be reallocated to focus more money on maintenance. If the Department of Transportation made this change, they would have an additional $20.4 billion for maintenance repairs each year. For perspective, the current funding used for maintenance is approximately $16.5 billion.
Raise the Gas Tax
The federal fuel tax is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. While this may sound substantial, the tax has remained stagnant since 1993. Inflation increased 64.4 percent between 1993 and 2015. This means the revenue generated by the fuel tax is not enough to cover the maintenance needed on existing roads. We need approximately $45 billion every year to improve all roadways to good condition. An increase in the gas tax could offset this figure.
Federal agencies could update policies to require local and state agencies to use a certain percentage of their allocated funding on maintenance projects, as opposed to new construction. Another option would be to deny funding for new construction projects until all required maintenance on existing infrastructure was up to date. This would also reduce the amount of new construction which eventually would need to be maintained.
Rank the Roads
The Department of Transportation could devote time to assessing existing infrastructure in local areas, and then use this information to create a list of the best and worst areas. Government officials up for re-election would then have additional incentives to push for maintenance projects to remove their city, town or state from the bottom of the list, lest they become the subject of negative publicity and attack advertisements.
Shifting political discussions and the public perception to the benefits of infrastructure maintenance may increase interest and demand for these types of repairs. This could appease voters and, in turn, work with government representatives’ political agendas.
While the future of infrastructure in the United States may look bleak, there is hope if we shift our focus from new construction to maintenance.