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Misplaced highway spending to blame for crumbling roads

Drivers across the nation face more than 90,000 miles of crumbling highways and more than 70,000 decaying bridges, according to a new report by the Arizona Public Interest Research Group.

Rough and rutted roads cause accidents, damage vehicles, trigger traffic jams that lead to countless hours of delay, and waste money Arizonans need for other expenses. To fix our roads and bridges, Arizona and America must adopt strong fix-it-first rules that give priority to maintenance of our existing roads and bridges, set goals for the condition of our transportation system, and hold state governments accountable for achieving results.

Drivers in Arizona pay an average of an extra $207 per year on car repairs because of highways and bridges in disrepair. Nearly one-third of Arizona’s major roads have fallen into less-than-good condition, and Arizona has 210 structurally deficient bridges.
Despite these problems, the state diverts more than a quarter-billion dollars a year to building new or wider highways. Arizona spends an average of 27 times as many federal dollars on new roadway construction than on bridge repair or maintenance.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs. The U.S. Department of Transportation rates 12 percent, or 71,000, of the nations’ bridges as “structurally deficient,” which means that a bridge has a major defect in its support structure or its deck is cracking and deteriorating. According to the department’s estimates, merely maintaining the condition and performance of the federal highway system would require investing more than $100 billion per year – double the amount that’s being spent now.

State’s that receive federal aid must plan for future maintenance before building new roads. States receiving federal transportation funds should calculate and publicly report the 10-, 20- and 50-year maintenance costs of all new or improved infrastructure projects and develop a plan demonstrating that enough money will be available over the lifespan of the infrastructure. Such requirements are commonplace in state applications for federal transit investments.
States that meet national objectives should be rewarded. States already receive bond ratings that show their ability to meet future obligations to investors who buy their assets. By that same principle, the U.S. Department of Transportation could develop a system to rate states based on their progress, or lack thereof, on preventative maintenance, deferred maintenance, and resources dedicated to repair. States with unsatisfactory ratings would be prohibited from transferring money out of federal repair programs for other purposes, and would risk losing their full federal funding over time.
Arizona and every state in the nation should adopt Fix-it First policies requiring state departments of transportation to focus on the rehabilitation of existing facilities before building new highways.

-Diane E. Brown is executive director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund.

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