3 Reasons Politicians Like Building New Roads More Than Fixing Old Ones

The cost to construct this bridge ($600 million) is more than the estimated $500 million it would cost to bring Minnesota's 1,191 "structurally deficient" bridges into a state of good repair. Guess which the state is moving ahead with. Image: Minnesota DOT
The $600 million it will cost to build this one bridge is more than the estimated $500 million needed to bring all of Minnesota’s 1,191 “structurally deficient” bridges into a state of good repair. Guess which project Minnesota is moving ahead with. Image: Minnesota DOT

American transportation policy places a premium on delivering big, shiny new things.

As much as the big state transportation agencies and their political bosses love pouring concrete, they tend to avoid keeping the things they build in good working condition. Many state DOTs still spend upwards of 90 percent of their annual budgets on new construction, according to Smart Growth America, despite all the ink that’s been spilled about structurally deficient bridges across the land.

The question is why? Why do new projects continue to hold such political appeal, even while the public is bombarded with messages about the fragile state of American infrastructure and business-as-usual practices bankrupt the current system of transportation funding?

We reached out to civil engineer and big thinker Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns for his take. Drawing from his experience as a municipal engineer, he said the problem boils down to three factors.

1. Building new infrastructure is less complicated than fixing existing infrastructure

“From the position of the construction worker on the ground, it’s so much easier to do something new because you don’t have to deal with all of the existing problems. You have the elevation of people’s sidewalks, you have people who don’t want to have the street shut down. It is just like a logistical nightmare to do maintenance. When you’re doing something new, where you control the site, it takes away the messiness.”

2. New projects tend to be more popular with the public

“People almost always respond positively to new stuff. They’ll tolerate the hassle of construction when you’re doing something that’s new. But if you say we’re going to take this bridge and tear it down and put it back the way it was, it doesn’t make anything better for them. It’s just maintenance. You don’t have anything new tomorrow that you didn’t have today. When you do maintenance projects you get pushback from people. They’ll tolerate new stuff because they perceive it as the necessary thing for things to get better. You know in like three months you’ll be able to drive a lot quicker.”

3. New construction is easier to finance

“Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Most federal and even state funding programs assume maintenance to be a local issue, so it is easier and more streamlined to get money for new stuff than for maintenance.”

  • Fixing the structurally deficient bridges would be the responsible thing for a true leader to do. Building one new bridge for an eye-popping cost is an example of poor leadership. Voters need to elect officials who can be leaders, not those who do the best of making themselves look good.

  • BWTrainer

    I would revise #2…with the *wealthy and politically important* public

  • Troy Torrison

    4. Fixing old stuff means you don’t get to cut a ceremonial ribbon in front of TV cameras. 5. Fixing old bridge means often means forcing people to change their routines…said people will then call politicians’ offices to complain. 5. After you fix stuff it just breaks again. 6. Contractors who fix old stuff don’t contribute as much to campaigns as all those would would benefit (and therefore contribute to politicians’ campaigns) with new stuff. 7. You don’t get the bridge you fixed named after you. You might get the new bridge you get built named after you. 8. A lot of old stuff, such as 90% of bridge overpasses, is ugly. 9. Santiago Calatrava is not interested in fixing your old stuff. He might take your call about a new thing you’re trying to build. 10. New appears to solve problem. Old stuff appears to be the problem. Appearance, for politicians, is everything.

  • Upper government dollars should not be provided to lower governments for new projects unless those local governments raise taxes to put dollars in the bank to eventually maintain that infrastructure. It should be ILLEGAL for governments to rack up infrastructure debt.

  • SFnative74

    “The $600 million it will cost to build this one bridge is more than the estimated $500 million needed to bring all of Minnesota’s 1,191 “structurally deficient” bridges into a state of good repair.”

    This is embarrassing. Let’s not pretend we are anything close to a sophisticated or rational country with decisions like this.

  • Larry Littlefield

    New roads and bridges connect to open land owned by developers.

    The existing roads and bridges in the worst condition are in the oldest areas, where the property is owned by middle and moderate income people and mom- and pop real estate firms.

    Votes say fix what is there. Campaign contributions say let the already developed areas decline to abandonment, as farms and forests are paved.

  • aw82

    I agree with the premise of the argument regarding support for new projects over maintenance projects. I do not consider myself a “supporter” of the Minnesota bridge project, but just to be fair here are some facts missing from the article:

    1. Wisconsin is actually paying for about half of the project ($250-310 million).
    2. Much of the funding is federal.
    3. The bridge in a sense replaces (by creating a bypass) a narrow, “functionally obsolete” lift bridge that is on the US Register of Historic Places, thereby removing inter-state (not Interstate) traffic from pouring into walkable downtown Stillwater, MN.
    4. The historic lift bridge is being repurposed as a bike/ped bridge and a loop trail (that also uses the new bridge) will be built to connect the two states.

    Not saying that all this entirely justifies the expense, but perhaps the villainizing of this one project is a bit too severe.

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