It's convenient for politicians to characterize the country's bridge and highway infrastructure as "one big pothole," to quote outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. It makes for a good sound bite, and it shows the homefolks their elected officials care about an issue central to their daily lives.
The pothole theory was amplified last month when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its latest report card on the nation's infrastructure. ASCE gave the road system—one of 16 categories—a "D." Bridges and railroads received a "C+." (The only category that received a "B" was "solid waste.")
But if a study published in February by think tank Reason Foundation is any guide, the reality doesn't quite match the rhetoric, or the ASCE's ratings. The study, headed by Dr. David T. Hartgen, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, analyzed federal highway and bridge data from 1989 to 2008, and collated the data into seven "indicators."
On a national scale, improvements—many of them significant—were shown across the board, the study found. Only 6 percent of urban interstate highways were deemed in poor condition, an 18-percent improvement during the nearly 20-year span. The number of bridges classified as "deficient," meaning they needed significant maintenance, rehabilitation, or replacement, declined more than 37 percent to 23.7 percent. Less than 2 percent of rural interstates were in poor condition, a near 71-percent improvement over 1989.
The study is not the first to conclude the concrete isn't cracking. In a 2010 report, the Department of Transportation found that the percentage of vehicle miles traveled over interstate roads rated by DOT as having "good ride quality" rose to 57 percent in 2009 from 46 percent in 2000. The percentage of bridges classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete declined to 29.4 percent in 2009 from 30.9 percent in 2002.
What's the take-away from all this? First, the problem may not be the condition of the roads, but the volume of traffic on them. In the Hartgen study, the smallest improvement among the seven categories came in the area of "urban interstate congestion." There, the improvement was a relatively meager 7.6 percent. As of the end of 2008, more than 48 percent of the interstate arteries surveyed were rated as "congested."
Second is the urgent need for alternate financing streams to supplement revenue from the federal motor fuels tax, which hasn't been raised in 20 years and is too politically lethal to stand any realistic chance of adjustment anytime soon. Surprisingly, inflation-adjusted spending per mile rose 60 percent over the 20-year span, according to Bob Poole of Reason. But per-mile spending grew even faster in states like Texas and Florida that used tolling revenue to bolster fuel tax receipts, he said.
As federal fuel tax revenues dwindle, it becomes clear states will lack the juice to fund expensive multiyear construction projects. States will have the ability to finance pressing "fix-it-first" work with their own fuel tax receipts and money from the feds. But the big projects will need funding from long-term debt obligations and/or private-public partnerships.
There are other remedies as well. Congress could do what it hasn't done in 31 years and raise the size and weight limits on trucks plying the interstates. This would make shipping more cost-effective and reduce truck traffic because each run would haul more freight.
A bad road is a time-wasting nuisance at best and a safety hazard at worst. And one bad bridge is one bad bridge too many. But in this age of austerity and sequestration, if we are to commit $50 billion to $100 billion to improve our mobility, let's look at what needs improving and what doesn't.