Study: US ignores bridge, road maintenance

Instead, existing policies favour the construction of new infrastructure and make it easy to shift funds away from bridge and road repair. Minnesota, where a 2007 bridge collapse killed 13 people, was one of the biggest states to shift money away from bridge repair, according to a new report from the Public Interest Research Group.

The US transportation funding system is inherently skewed against maintaining roads and bridges and instead favours new construction, a bias which has dire implications for the nation’s 45,000 miles of interstate highway and 575,000 highway bridges.

The US Public Interest Research Group, a Washington DC-based advocacy group, made the warnings in a report entitled “Road Work Ahead: Holding Government Accountable for Fixing America’s Crumbling Roads and Bridges”.

The report comes just as Pennsylvania convened a special session this week of its legislature to try to plug a $472 million hole in its transportation budget and as the US Congress debates the reauthorisation of the US’ national transportation programme. 

When's the last time you saw a ribbon cutting for a preventive maintenance project? It just never happens. Politicians like things they're going to get recognition for.

Phineas Baxandall

Among the problems facing states, such as Pennsylvania, is a backlog of more than 5,000 structurally deficient bridges. The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) said deficits like these can partially be blamed on state transportation agencies, which “tend to weigh political support and public opinion more heavily than cost-benefit calculations when deciding how to spend federal transportation dollars”.

As a result, projects like ongoing maintenance become neglected because they are less politically popular than new construction projects.

“When’s the last time you saw a ribbon cutting for a preventive maintenance project?” said Phineas Baxandall, one of the authors of the report. “It just never happens. Politicians like things that they’re going to get recognition for.”

State transportation agencies also “bend” the definition of maintenance to include expansion project, PIRG said. As a result, there is even less money available to repair roads and bridges than there otherwise would be.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, disagreed with the report’s findings. On the National Journal’s transportation experts blog, he said: “PIRG would have Congress focus nearly all highway funding on preservation and make it difficult, if not impossible, to invest in needed system expansion”.

Baxandall countered that “there just isn’t enough money to fund everything”, so there is a need to prioritise spending, including on maintenance projects. The US’s current transportation financing system is so flexible, the PIRG report said, that states can easily shift money away from one federal transportation programme to another, regardless of its need for maintenance investment.

Minnesota's I-35W bridge
collapse in August 2007

For example, between 1998 and 2006, 27 states transferred a collective $2.8 billion of Highway Bridge Program funds to other projects, according to the report. PIRG noted that one of the biggest states to do so was Minnesota, which took $51 million of such bridge repair money and put it to other uses. Minnesota is also the state where, in 2007, a highway bridge collapsed, killing 13 people.

“That’s the clearest example of where transportation [funding] is not serving the public interest,” Baxandall said. “It seems like common sense that you shouldn’t be transferring money out of bridge programmes until bridges are repaired.”

To address this problem, PIRG recommends that states adopt “fix it first” policies, where they first allocate funds to repairing infrastructure before they fund new projects.

“I don’t think it makes sense for the Federal government to micromanage the way state [departments of transportation] spend their money but I do think it makes sense to hold them accountable for results and that isn’t happening,” he said.

Another mechanism for creating more accountability would be to introduce a system for scoring projects according to their importance and allocating transportation funds according to the scores. PIRG backed such an approach and recommended the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program, which prioritises transit funding according to need, as a blueprint for transportation funding as a whole.

“That would be a revolutionary change, but it makes a lot of sense,” Baxandall said.