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

10:45 AM EDT on April 29, 2011

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.

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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.

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