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The Nation Is Falling Behind When It Comes to the Condition of Our Roads.

Between 2009 and 2017, the percentage of the roads nationwide in poor condition increased from 14 to 20%. The percentage of roads in “good condition” increased only slightly: from 36 to 38% over that eight-year period.

This is especially concerning given that Congress provided additional federal funding for transportation infrastructure twice over that time period. We also benefited from the one-time boost provided by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which significantly increased the funding available for road repair for several years. Despite these injections of funds, states prioritized new or expanded roads and failed to make a dent in the backlog of roads in poor condition.

Because of this, we are facing a looming spending gap. As of 2017, Transportation for America estimates that we would need to spend $231.4 billion per year just to keep our existing road network in acceptable repair and bring the backlog of roads in poor condition into good repair over a six-year period, the typical length of a federal transportation reauthorization.

It is significantly more expensive to rehabilitate roads that have fallen into poor repair than to preserve roads in good condition on an ongoing basis through routine pavement preservation. By comparison, all highway capital expenditures across all government units totaled $105.4 billion in 2015, only a portion of which goes to repair.

This is more than a money problem – it’s a priorities problem. The latest available data shows states have made some improvement in their spending since the first edition of Repair Priorities was released in 2011. That edition found that between 2004 and 2008, states collectively spent $21 billion per year on road expansion and $16 billion per year on repair and preservation. States have increased their spending on road repair in the years since, spending $21.4 billion on average on road repair annually between 2009-2014 (the latest year with available data) and $21.3 billion annually on road expansion. Spending on road repair accounted for 30% of states’ total capital spending on highways over that time, while road expansion accounted for 29%.

However, this means that states are still spending just as much on road expansion as road repair. These investments in expansion don’t just redirect funds away from much needed investments in repair; they continually grow our annual spending need, widening the gap. Every new lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 per year to preserve in a state of good repair. By expanding roads, we are borrowing against the future.

So What Will It Take to Fix the System?

Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense are calling on Congress to address this in any infrastructure package they consider, including the upcoming 2020 federal transportation bill. Congress should take the following actions in the 2020 transportation bill to get us back on track:

1. Guarantee measurable outcomes for American taxpayers with any new funding. The next transportation bill should set clear, quantifiable outcomes the program is expected to accomplish. Congress could set a goal for repairing all roads in poor condition and write a bill that clearly moves the ball forward toward that goal. If it cannot be done in the next six-year authorization bill, Congress should make clear what is feasible.

2. Require that states repair their existing systems before expanding. Congress should require that states dedicate available highway formula funding to repairing the existing system first. Historically, states have used this formula funding for new road construction. Congress could grant states additional flexibility if they are able to demonstrate that they are keeping their roads in good condition above a certain percentage threshold.

3. Require project sponsors to demonstrate that they can afford to maintain new roadway capacity projects. To supplement this formula funding now dedicated to repair and maintenance, Congress should create a competitive program to fund highway capacity expansion projects similar to the New Starts transit capital program. Projects should be evaluated for funding based on clear performance criteria to ensure that funded projects produce substantial benefit for the cost, and project sponsors should demonstrate that they can operate and maintain the asset throughout its useful life, ensuring a plan for long-term upkeep.

4. Track progress and require that FHWA publish results. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act in 2012 established a requirement that states and metro areas set performance targets for the pavement conditions of the interstate and non-interstate highways they maintain. Yet FHWA did not make those targets publicly available until spring 2019, seven years after passage of the law. The new transportation bill should establish stronger reporting requirements to ensure that our investments produce the needed results.

“Repair Priorities 2019” provides a national snapshot and state-by-state evaluation of current roadway pavement conditions, spending trends, and unmet needs. It also recommends crucial actions federal policymakers should take in the next transportation reauthorization bill to get the nation’s roads – and spending priorities – back on track.

Despite More Spending, Our Roads Are Not Getting Better

The nation is falling behind when it comes to the condition of our roads. Between 2009 and 2017, the percentage of the roads nationwide in “poor condition” – a category defined by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on a scale of good, fair, and poor – increased from 14 to 20%. The percentage of roads in “good condition” increased only slightly: from 36 to 38% over that nine-year period.

This is especially concerning given that, in addition to passing two long-term reauthorizations of federal transportation spending during this time, Congress also provided a massive boost of additional one-time funding with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Even though the stimulus, as it is more commonly known, injected billions of dollars into the surface transportation system, we still failed to make a dent in the backlog of roads in poor condition.

We Are Facing a Looming Spending Gap

There is a sizable gap between what states and localities are spending on road repair and the amount we would need to spend to keep roads in good condition over time. While previous editions of “Repair Priorities” by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense have looked exclusively at what states would need to spend to repair and preserve state-owned roads, the 2019 edition chose to look at all of the nation’s publicly-managed roads across jurisdictions to better understand the magnitude of the gap.

  • $169 billion per year just to keep our good roads “good.” As of 2017, we would need to spend an estimated $168.6 billion per year exclusively on road repair just to preserve the nation’s roads that are currently in good and fair condition in that acceptable state through routine pavement management practices.
  • $63 billion per year on top of that to address the backlog of poor roads. We are also facing a substantial financial burden to bring the backlog of roads currently in poor condition into good repair. It is significantly more expensive to rehabilitate roads that have fallen into poor repair than to preserve roads in good condition on an ongoing basis through routine pavement preservation. The report estimates that the total cost to bring the nation’s current backlog of roads in poor condition into good repair is approximately $376.4 billion, or $62.7 billion per year over a six-year federal transportation bill.
  • Taken together, this means we are currently facing a total need of $231.4 billion per year just to keep our existing road network in acceptable repair. For comparison, all highway capital expenditures across all government units totaled $105.4 billion in 2015, only a portion of which goes to repair. Policymakers treat roads as economic assets on their balance sheets, but they are also major financial liabilities. They bring guaranteed costs over their life cycles – costs that are rarely fully accounted for on the front end. The true cost of our roads is likely even higher than the figures above, which do not account for bridge repair needs and other costs associated with maintaining our road network, such as snow removal, stormwater management, and traffic enforcement.
  • Not just a money problem – a priorities problem. The numbers are clear: we cannot afford to maintain the roads we have, let alone the new roads we keep adding to the system. The rhetoric on transportation funding in most states and Washington, D.C., is all about “repairing our crumbling roads and bridges.” But do our priorities match this rhetoric?
  • This report evaluates how well states are aligning their actual spending priorities with that notion. The latest year with available data is 2014. States spent $21.4 billion on average on road expansion annually between 2009-2014, a slight increase from $21 billion per year between 2004-2008. Spending on road repair accounted for 30% of states’ total capital spending on highways between 2009-2014, while road expansion accounted for 29%.
  • However, that means states are still spending just as much on road expansion as road repair. In fact, road expansion takes funds away from much-needed road repair investments. Every new lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 per year to preserve in a state of good repair through ongoing pavement management. By expanding roads, we are borrowing against the future.

While FHWA has not yet published data on spending after 2014, spending patterns likely have not changed in the years since based on how much the nation’s road network has grown. State transportation departments alone added 16,663 lane-miles to the network of roads they maintain between 2011-2017. And they’ve kept up the pace; they added 5,325 of those lane-miles just since 2015.

The full public road network across all jurisdictions grew by 223,494 lane-miles nationally between 2009-2017, further adding to the financial burden to keep our roads in good repair. Those new lane miles could run back-and-forth across the width of America 83 times.

We now have to spend an additional $5 billion per year just to keep those new roads in good condition. That is more than Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas receive together in federal highway apportionments each year.

Outlook by State

A number of states have made changes since 2011, shifting funds away from road expansion to repair and preservation. West Virginia, for example, devoted 31% of the state’s highway capital budget to road expansion between 2009 and 2014 and just 19% to road repair, and saw the percentage of roads in poor condition increase from 28 to 31% between 2009 and 2017.

Yet on a state-by-state basis, the story is also more complex:

  • Some states are spending a significant portion of their available funding on repair and are seeing pavement conditions improve over time – like New Jersey.
  • Some states are devoting more of their available funds to road repair, but are still seeing worsening pavement conditions because the backlog is too great; for example, Michigan. These states may need additional funds to keep their roads in good condition.
  • Other states, like Tennessee, have been able to maintain a large percentage of their roads in good condition with their available funding, allowing them to devote funds to road expansion without compromising the quality of their existing system.

Spending by State

A number of states have made changes to their spending and shifted funds away from road expansion to repair and preservation since the release of the first edition of Repair Priorities in 2011.

  • South Dakota is leading the nation, having dedicated 69% of its highway capital budget to road repair between 2009-2014.
  • North Dakota is a close second, with 68% of its highway capital spending going to road repair over that time.
  • Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and Wyoming all allocated more than 50% of their highway capital budgets to road repair.
  • Not all states did so well, however. Arizona, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and Utah all devoted more than 45% of their available highway capital funds to road expansion between 2009 and 2014.

Road Conditions by State

While pavement conditions worsened slightly at the national level between 2009 and 2017 – even with billions in spending devoted to repair – the outlook is worse for a number of states. Thirty-seven states saw an increase in the percentage of roads in poor condition between 2009 and 2017.

A number of states also saw their roads improve between 2009 and 2017:

  • Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey and Vermont saw the biggest decreases in the percentage of their roads in poor condition. However, these changes also need to be put in context. The states that saw the biggest changes in pavement condition aren’t necessarily the states whose roads are in the best and worst condition as of 2017. Or, put another way, having the biggest change is not the same as having the best current conditions.
  • Eleven states have at least 30% of their road network in poor condition as of 2017. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island had the highest percentage of roads in poor condition.
  • By contrast Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, and Tennessee had the lowest percentage of their roads in poor condition as of 2017. And Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming had the highest percentage of roads in good condition as of 2017.

Taking Action

Congress should take the following actions in the 2020 transportation bill to get us back on track.

Guarantee measurable outcomes for American taxpayers with any new funding. We can no longer ask the American taxpayer for more funding to fix crumbling roads and bridges without more assurances that the money will actually make things better. Continuing to do so will only erode trust. Federal policymakers can typically agree across political party lines that more funding is needed for transportation – what they have failed to do is establish a clear vision for what that funding will achieve for the nation. It should be no surprise then that states are spending a substantial share of their transportation funds on building new roads.

The next transportation bill should set clear, quantifiable outcomes for the program to accomplish. For example, this analysis estimates a total annual need of $231.4 billion per year to keep our good and fair existing roads in that acceptable state and bring the backlog of roads in poor condition into good repair over a six-year period.

Congress could set a goal for repairing all roads in poor condition and write a bill that clearly moves the ball forward toward that goal. If it can’t be done in the next six-year authorization bill then Congress should make clear what is feasible – such as reducing the percentage by half so that no more than 10% of the nation’s roads will be in poor condition by 2026. These are the kinds of concrete, tangible goals that have been sorely missing from federal transportation policy for far too long.

Require states to repair their existing systems before expanding. Congress should require that states dedicate available highway formula funding to repairing and maintaining the existing system first. Historically, states have used this formula funding for new road construction. Continually expanding the system while neglecting regular repair has created this current backlog of costly repair needs. It’s also encouraged sprawling, car-oriented development that increases the length and number of car trips. As a result, states return to the federal government every few years requesting more funds to address unmet “needs,” when those needs could have been prevented or delayed with more responsible spending practices. Congress could also grant states additional flexibility with their funds if they are able to demonstrate that they are keeping their roads in good condition above a certain percentage threshold.

Require project sponsors to demonstrate they can afford to maintain new roadway capacity projects. In the transit program, major new projects are stringently evaluated before receiving federal funding to ensure that: 1) they support federal goals, 2) the project sponsor has the funding to operate and maintain the new asset, and 3) the project sponsor can manage the new asset without shortchanging the rest of their system. These same commonsense principles are not applied to the highway program.

In other words, under our current federal program, a project sponsor can build a new road that they cannot afford to maintain, even as they are failing to maintain the rest of their system in a good state of repair. It is time to require a higher level of asset management in the highway program.

The new transportation program should focus on getting greater efficiency from the roads we have already built and ensuring that we have a plan for operating and maintaining what we build.

Taking another cue from the transit program, to supplement the funding distributed by formula to states dedicated to highway repair and maintenance, Congress should also create a competitive program to fund new highway capacity expansion projects.

Project sponsors should demonstrate that they can operate and maintain the asset throughout its useful life, and projects should be evaluated for funding based on clear performance criteria to ensure that funded projects produce substantial benefits for the cost. This could include demonstrating improvement in access to jobs and services, reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions, improving safety, reducing the cost of managing the transportation system, providing better outcomes for disadvantaged populations, or accomplishing other policy goals.

Track Progress and Require That FHWA Publish Results

The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act in 2012 established new requirements that state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations set performance targets for the pavement conditions of the interstate and non-interstate highways they maintain, and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 reaffirmed this requirement.

As of 2017, all states reported their roadway pavement conditions targets to FHWA. But for some perplexing reason, it took until spring of 2019 for those targets to be available to the public, and they are difficult to digest in their current form. FHWA also has not reported a baseline of current conditions for many states, which makes it impossible to tell if any state’s target would represent an improvement over current conditions or a deterioration.

Further, the highway spending data reported by FHWA is unacceptably out of date – the most recent publicly available data on state highway capital spending used in this analysis is from 2014. This delay is an unacceptable failure that Congress and the president should require FHWA to fix before asking taxpayers to provide more funding for transportation.

How can the public have any idea whether or not federal spending is accomplishing what has been promised without better data? The new transportation bill should establish stronger reporting requirements to ensure that our investments produce the needed results. Congress should also require that FHWA publish up-to-date information on state highway expenditures.

Source: Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense.


2019 Bridge Report