New Report Takes on ‘Perverse Incentives’ to De-Emphasize Bridge Repair

When Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007, lawmakers from both parties vowed to focus on shoring up the nation’s aging infrastructure. But when the public spotlight faded from the issue of infrastructure repair, Congress showed little appetite for setting aside maintenance aid that did not hold the promise of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or campaign donations.

pie.pngThe state of repair for America’s urban roads, according to federal maintenance data. In rural areas, 61% are rated "good." (Chart: U.S. PIRG)

Meanwhile, existing federal transportation formulas dole out bridge repair money based on the size of each state’s maintenance backlog. But up to half of that repair funding can be redirected to other purposes, such as building new roads, with the assurance of continued largess — as long as local bridges remain unfixed.

That little-known provision is one of many "perverse incentives" highlighted in a report on road and bridge maintenance released today by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups’ (PIRG) education fund.

The rules governing federal aid for interstate maintenance, according to the U.S. PIRG, are equally skewed to ensure older roads keep crumbling. Take the cases of New York, where 567 miles of road were rated in less than "good" condition by the U.S. DOT (see categories in the above pie chart), and Florida, where 13 miles were in the same aging state.

One might think that New York would receive more maintenance money from Washington. But as today’s report points out:

[B]ecause of New York and Florida’s similar number of Interstate lane miles, both states received about the same amount of Interstate Maintenance Program funding over the last five years — $182 million for New York and $193 million for Florida, annually.

Transportation policymakers tend to be inundated by reports, but the U.S. PIRG hopes to aim its research beyond a simple call for extra repair funding in the next long-term federal infrastructure bill.

"We’re hoping the report will be a call to look hard at the actual politics behind these
problems," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall, one of the document’s three primary co-authors, said in an interview. "This is not simply a problem [solved by] pouring more money into the system."

Baxandall and his colleagues also attempted to tally the real-world costs of inattention to road and bridge repair needs. Their report notes that car maintenance bills incurred by travelers on older roads is significantly higher in major cities: Drivers in Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco all pay more than $700 extra per year, according to the most recent data released by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

And given that the political climate suggests Congress will be hard-pressed to pass a new six-year infrastructure bill before 2011 — depriving pro-repair advocates of their principal vehicle for broad "fix-it-first" reform — the U.S. PIRG report also maps the route to progress on the state level in the meantime.

The report’s authors highlight laws on the books in Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland that "requir[e] state DOTs to focus on the rehabilitation of existing facilities before building new highways."

Baxandall said he was particularly heartened by Maryland officials’ move to set up clear metrics for determining their progress on bringing the local built environment into a state of good repair. "If it can happen in the states," he said, "it will [happen on] the federal level."

  • The bottom line is that we need to invest more in our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Existing roads, bridges and transit systems need to be brought to a “state of good repair.” The fact of the matter is that there is not enough funding for state of good repair today, or for needed capacity increases across the surface transportation network to anticipate population and economic growth to come.

    We can’t have the fight over who should get what piece of the pie until the pie is big enough to fight over. Until we convince Congress and this administration to add SAFETEA-LU reauthorization the to the legislative priority list, the discussion over who gets what and how much is moot. Congress needs to fund critical infrastructure projects as well as instituting policy and programmatic reforms to ensure dollars are spent wisely.

    The ATM Coalition represents businesses, labor organizations, transit groups, and other transportation stakeholders in calling on Congress to craft comprehensive, multi-year surface transportation legislation that addresses national priorities with national resources. More information on the current state of America’s infrastructure and help with contacting your Members of Congress can be found on the Coalition Web site, http://www.fasterbettersafer.com.

  • marin

    Federal Highway Admin’s rules are full of perverse incentives. They are an agency that has yet to find its way beyond the era of building interstates. Here’s another bridge example – there is a drawbridge in the mid-Atlantic, where the proper functioning of electro-mechanical drawspans provide for critical access to the atlantic ocean for the US Coast Guard. Repairing the drawspan systems are not eligible for bridge rehab funding; it also happens that the deck grating is failing. But FHWA in its infinite wisdom says that replacing the steel grate decking isn’t eligible for fed bridge funds either because the grating wouldn’t be needed if the electro-mechanical system wasn’t there (in other words there would be a concrete deck.)

    So….the e/m systems can’t be replaced because they aren’t critical components to a bridge (tell that to the Coast Guard), and the grating can’t be replaced because its unnecessary (tell that to the truckers).
    The logic of our friends at FHWA is beyond ludicrous.

    Oh, and by the way, you can’t use bridge funds to maintain bridges (unless they are on an interstate), you can only use funds to pay millions to rebuild them.
    Stupifyingly dumb.

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