Washington Post Blog, 14 October 2011
Posted by Brad Plumer
When it comes to infrastructure spending, politicians tend to prefer gleaming new roads and highways over humdrum repairs. A brand-new highway is exciting: there’s a ribbon-cutting, there’s less need to clog up existing roads with orange cones and repair crews. So it’s not surprising that 57 percent of all state highway funding goes toward new construction, even though this represents just 1.3 percent of the overall system. Yet many transportation reformers have long argued that this bias against fixing what we already have is a terrible way to do business.
Case in point: This week, Taxpayers for Common Sense released a report noting that 11.5 percent of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are “structurally deficient” in some way. That doesn’t mean these bridges will fall down tomorrow (although, in extreme cases, it can mean that; the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis was rated “structurally deficient” just two years before it collapsed in 2007). But it suggests that our priorities might be out of whack, says TCS transportation analyst Erich Zimmermann, especially in an era where funds are tight.
Earlier this year, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn and the University of Minnesota’s David Levinson made a more detailed case for a “fix-it first” strategy for transportation spending. They note that, at the moment, federal highway spending doesn’t usually get subjected to strict cost-benefit analysis, and there’s usually public pressure to build new roads and bridges rather than maintain existing ones. You see this pressure in all sorts of subtle ways: When a highway gets clogged, it’s a lot more palatable to expand lanes rather than, say, put in place congestion fees — even though research has found that widening highways doesn’t do much to alleviate traffic jams.