Digging a Hole: What's Behind America's Aversion to Fixing It First?

America’s bridges are deficient and its roads are potholed. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in over a decade, leaving revenues insufficient to maintain the infrastructure we have.

Seattle residents want infrastructure maintenance more than new construction, so why does the government continue to prioritize new projects when the current system is in such disrepair? Image: ##http://publicola.com/2011/04/28/poll-seattle-residents-want-city-to-maintain-streets-not-build-new-projects/?utm_source=RSS+Feed&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+publicola+%28PubliCola%29## PubliCola##

Yet a strong bias toward new construction persists in American transportation policies. The Economist commented on this disconnect recently in a story about the state of U.S. infrastructure titled “Life in the Slow Lane.” Network blog the Transportationist carried this excerpt:

Although America still builds roads with enthusiasm, according to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, it spends considerably less than Europe on maintaining them. In 2006 America spent more than twice as much per person as Britain on new construction; but Britain spent 23% more per person maintaining its roads.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that America needs to spend $20 billion more a year just to maintain its infrastructure at the present, inadequate, levels. Up to $80 billion a year in additional spending could be spent on projects which would show positive economic returns. Other reports go further. In 2005 Congress established the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. In 2008 the commission reckoned that America needed at least $255 billion per year in transport spending over the next half-century to keep the system in good repair and make the needed upgrades. Current spending falls 60% short of that amount.”

Everyday Americans, meanwhile, favor maintenance over new infrastructure, at least according to a poll commissioned by the city of Seattle. Erica C. Barnett at Network blog PubliCola has this to say about the results:

Asked whether building new projects or maintaining existing infrastructure was a bigger priority, just 15 percent of respondents said building new projects was more important. Thirty percent said maintenance was more important, and 54 percent said both were important.

Ranked in order of priority, Seattle residents’ top transportation investments were: Paving streets/repairing potholes (69 percent); repairing or replacing aging bridges (68 percent rated this “important” or “very important”); improving the most heavily used roads (62 percent); and modifying existing roads to work safely for all users (59 percent).

As always, we’d like to hear your opinions: Why does new construction continue to be prioritized over maintenance in the United States? Is it because politicians like to cut ribbons? Bureaucratic inertia? The road lobby?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Steven Can Plan ponders the tendency of news articles about cyclists to bring out the misanthropes. Urban Velo reports that Bicycling Magazine is shifting its focus to better incorporate urban cycling culture. And Reinventing Urban Transport wonders whether “mobility brokers” are the next logical step to help car-free city dwellers navigate the growing range of transportation options.

  • Danny G

    Gotta love that 1% of anarchists. Seattle keepin’ it real!

  • john

    “There’s no other public forum in which people wish death on their fellow citizens like the comments to a story about biking.” Wonder why? TV broadcasters misleading drivers and cyclists about rules of the road and confusing taking the lane with riding in the middle of the road:
    http://www.ksdk.com/news/article/256654/3/Hey-Heidi-Can-cyclists-ride-in-the-middle-of-the-road

  • Tom

    KSDK! Is that the all Sadik-Khan all-the-time cable channel?

  • Guestx

    It’s a lot easier to get credit for building a new bridge, than fixing-up lots of old ones that still work, but are kind of falling apart. New projects create a specific benefit and have a specific constituency whose political support is easier to activate. Raising an overall transportation system to a better level of repair (fix it first) takes lots more time and money, and provides a diffuse benefit that doesn’t register on the general public. Proof is in the pudding and politicians clearly believe it’s better to let stuff fall apart, and then let a successor get credit for fixing a bridge that’s about to fall down.

  • Surprised that you didn’t mention Transportation for America’s Fix It campaign – http://www.fixitforamerica.org/

    They’ve also done some valuable polling around this topic: http://t4america.org/blog/2011/02/14/americans-want-congress-to-fix-it-first-invest-in-and-improve-our-transportation-system/

  • Anonymous

    People in Seattle have good reason to fear that they will be crushed by crumbling infrastructure in the next earthquake. No joke–that Alaska Way viaduct is scary. The proposed tunnel alternative is potentially vulnerable to extreme tides or tsunamis. That stuff never happens in real life, though, so it should be cool.

  • Karen Lynn Allen

    Perhaps it’s a reflection of our throw-away society with its massive preference to buy a new one rather than repair the old. However, when it comes to bridges and highways, this is an expensive, not to mention dangerous, habit. Maybe we need laws that say no new infrastructure projects can be built unless at least 90% of current infrastructure is rated in good repair (i.e. able to perform its function within the specifications it was designed for and not likely to fail and kill people within the next five years.)

    But this requires a delay of gratification. Kind of like eating vegetables before dessert, cleaning your room before going out to play, doing your homework before going on Facebook, etc. . . .

  • Clutch J

    In the USA, there is no transportation policy, only transportation politics. Those politics are defined by the money that developers, labor unions and construction lobbies pour into campaigns. The return on investment of that campaign funding is road construction and ribbon cuttings.

    Now, we may have some fancy stats that show road repair to create as many or more jobs as new construction. But that hasn’t yet overcome political considerations.

  • guest

    Wow, that’s…embarrassing. The state of news reporting in St. Louis has really gone down the toilet, that’s for sure. I hope cyclists can stay safe out there, sharing the road with such ignoramuses.

  • “Why does new construction continue to be prioritized over maintenance in the United States?” See 2 recent Urbanophile posts:
    http://www.urbanophile.com/2011/04/15/replay-the-power-of-greenfield-economics/
    http://www.urbanophile.com/2011/04/18/this-is-why-were-broke/
    It continues to be cheaper/more profitable in the short term for businesses and real estate developers to locate in exurban areas; it is likewise in the short term interest of exurban local officials to roll out the red carpet for them, since they can increase their tax base by poaching. And state and local road commissions let them get away with it by picking up the tab for maintenance when it comes due. It explains sprawl, and it explains the priority given new construction.

  • Anonymous

    Maintenance vs. New Construction isn’t just an infrastructure question – it has labor, political, and economic dimensions too.

    Sprawl was a powerful engine for disempowering unions, and neutralized the grip they had on American cities & transportation through the early industrial era into the Depression. Consider the 1934 West Coast general strike. That lesson is so deeply embedded that we often fail to recognize its vestiges today.

    With maintenance opening the door to an open-ended commitment to what’s already built, the business model of competing contracts for swappable operators with every project comes under increased pressure to stick with whoever is reliable. You’re now setting the conditions for resurgent trades-unionism.

    Maintenance also sticks in the craw of that other ‘market innovation’ of planned obsolescense. Just think, if our cities had a real maintenance budget model, do you really think we’d have as much macadam asphalt? Initially expensive composite cobbles become a lot more attractive.

    I posit these are some of the reasons why Americans have an inherited aversion to maintenance first.

  • dangermouse

    America can’t have proper roads because we refer to statistics as “fancy”

  • Gerrard

    Anyone slightly versed in Marxism might look to Italian theorist Amadeo Bordiga for the answer to this question. The following is from an introduction to his essay “Murder of the Dead.” Replace “disasters” with “deterioration” (e.g of roads, bridges, etc.) :

    It is not just because preventing disasters is expensive that capitalism fails to invest. Bordiga shows that capitalism is driven by “the ravenous hunger for catastrophe and ruin”, that it needs destruction. While disasters can destroy capitalist property, “The wealth that disappeared was that of past, ages-old labour. To eliminate the effect of the catastrophe, a huge mass of present-day, living labour is required” (“Murder of the Dead”).

    For Marx, “Capital is dead labour, which, vampire like, lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Bordiga goes a step further and shows that “To exploit living labour, capital must destroy dead labour which is still useful. Loving to suck warm young blood, it kills corpses”. Hence “capitalism, oppressor of the living, is the murderer also of the dead” (ibid).

    This somewhat gothic imagery is used to make a fundamental point. Buildings, bridges, roads, like consumer goods, are the products of “past crystallised labour”, dead labour. The big profits are made when they are built, but they are only built once – unless they are destroyed and need to be built again. Thus “Modern capital… has a great interest in letting the products of dead labour fall into disuse as soon as possible so as to impose their renewal with living labour, the only type from which it ‘sucks’ profit. That is why it is in seventh heaven when war breaks out and that is why it is so well trained for the practice of disasters” (ibid). The principle is the same as with the built-in obsolescence of consumer goods, a point Bordiga emphasises in relation to the motor industry: “Car production in America is massive, but all, or nearly all, families have a car, so demand might be exhausted. So then it is better that the cars last only a short time” (ibid).

    In the case of the Po valley floods, it might have been the case that “the maintenance of the Po embankments for ten kilometres requires human labour costing, let us say, one million a year” but “it suits capitalism better to rebuild them all spending one billion”. Disasters are good for business: “high incomes thrive where high levels of destruction occur, big business deals being based on them”. It is the working class who lose “everything in the disaster, but unfortunately not their chains” (ibid).

  • Bob Davis

    I call it the “Golden Spike” mindset. We celebrate the “completion” of the Pacific Railroad on May 10, 1869, but forget that it took several years to convert this hastily-built railway into a reliable transportation corridor. Spindly trestles that trains had to creep across were replaced by substantial embankments. Ties made from processed cottonwood were replaced by oak and pine. Curves that slowed trains to a crawl were straightened. All this took time and money, but didn’t yield any “photo opportunities” or great celebrations.

  • Nathanael

    I think it has to do with bad politics, though I couldn’t tell you how *specifically*. In my home town, we had *two mayors in a row* who didn’t do any road repairs. Then we got the best mayor in a lifetime, who poured tax money into repairing every road in town at once. People were mad about the disruption, but she was described by the Director of Public Works as “the first mayor I’ve ever worked for who understood the importance of infrastructure”, IIRC. And perhaps that’s the problem. There just aren’t enough politicians who really understand infrastructure or the importance of maintenance.

  • Rob

    Even where projects are being undertaken in the name of “maintenance” they are “value-engineered” to include highway expansion activities – even where all signs are that the expansion, if any, should be in transit service. To further compound the problem, SGR needs for transit, even where present in a defined project area subject to an ongoing EIS, are isloated from highway needs and ignored because state DOTs “don’t own” transit amenities.

    As for why, consider it a study in cognitive dissonance . . .

  • My cynical self would tell you that developers trade campaign contributions for support of new sprawl, which is where the money is — for politicians and developers. And not enough regular, non-politician-purchasing people vote, or demand action from their representatives.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    more: http://completelybaked.blogspot.com/

  • Every town should always have a safe and clean road, or should
    I say well organize road so that the people can easily and safely travel from
    one place to another. It’s the responsibility of city officials to make a road
    for the city, I guess it’s always on the priority list of the mayor.