State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

States spend more than half their money on new construction. Image: Smart Growth America
States spend more than half their road money on adding lanes and new highways. Image: Smart Growth America

Even though 33 percent of its roads are in “poor” condition, West Virginia spends about 73 percent of its road budget building new roads and adding lanes. Mississippi spends 97 percent of its road money on expansion. Texas, 82 percent.

Smart Growth America reports that the 50 states and the District of Columbia, combined, devote 55 percent of their road spending — $20.4 billion a year — to expansions, according to data states provide to the Federal Highway Administration. Between 2009 and 2011, that investment added 8,822 lane miles to the nation’s highway system — meaning that more than half of states’ road dollars were dedicated to less than 1 percent of their roads.

Meanwhile, states spent $16.5 billion annually, or 45 percent of their total road budgets, maintaining and repairing the other 99 percent of the nation’s roads.

In total, 21 percent of America’s roads are in “poor” condition, based on an international index that measures ride quality and surface smoothness. And the condition of the nation’s roads is getting worse. The last time Smart Growth America checked in, in 2008, 41 percent were in “good” condition. By 2011, that figure was down to 37 percent.

“States are adding to a system they are failing to maintain,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which co-funded the study, in a webinar hosted by SGA this morning. “Every new lane mile is a lane that will eventually have to be repaired.”

SGA reports that in order to bring all the country’s roads into a state of good repair, states would need to nearly triple the amount of money they are spending on maintenance, or spend $45.2 billion every year for the next 20 years.

Picture 7
Image: Smart Growth America

States used to be worse about how they allocate road funds. In 2008, states were spending 57 percent of this money on expansion and just 42 percent on repairs. But states aren’t shifting from new construction to maintenance at a fast enough pace to keep the country’s roads from sliding into further disrepair.

Image: Smart Growth America
Image: Smart Growth America

A handful of states do stand out from the rest, ensuring that their road spending doesn’t set them up for long-term financial problems.

Rich Tretrault, director of program development for the Vermont Department of Transportation, said his state had a bit of a come-to-God moment while reviewing budgets in 2007.

“We had a wake-up call,” said Tretrault. “We weren’t going to survive without making the change. We just couldn’t afford it.”

The state now devotes about 77 percent of its road budget to maintenance. Between 2008 and 2011, Vermont increased the share of its roads in “good” condition from 23 percent to 42 percent.

Tennessee is another state that’s setting a good example. Steve Allen, strategic investments director at Tennessee DOT, said his state is recognized for having its roads in the second-best condition of any state in the country. And, even better, Tennessee is one of just four states that has no transportation debt.

And even though Tennessee’s population is growing pretty quickly, the state keeps costs under control through careful prioritization, he said.

“We used to fund projects first and what was left over would be our maintenance budget,” he said. “Now we move the maintenance money first. We say that money is not going to be able to spent on projects.”

Michigan is another leader. The state is known for its “asset management” program, which predicts the rate roads at which will deteriorate and makes an effort to time repairs at the least expensive juncture in the life cycle. In 2004, Michigan began a program with municipalities called the Multi-Jurisdictional Asset Management Council, which helps local communities strategically balance spending as well.

“About 2004, MDOT started to feel the pinch financially and made the conscious decision to really limit its expansion projects,” said the organization’s Polly Kent. “We focused our resources on preserving the existing system.”

Rather than adding capacity, between 2009 and 2011, Michigan actually reduced the number of state-controlled lane miles by 17.

8 thoughts on State DOTs Let Roads Fall Apart While Splurging on Highway Expansion

  1. SGA analysis and conclusions are completely wrong. Look at their methodology in the appendix documenting how they calculate costs. SGA includes all money categorized as ROW acquisition, reconstruction with added capacity and major widening as new capacity. This is wrong. Their conclusions are incorrect based upon the bad analysis.

    Come on Streetsblog, do some real research and journalism.

  2. Sounds like a reasonable definition of new capacity. What’s the issue? Are you arguing that adding lanes to an existing highway should not count as new capacity?

  3. A lot of ROW acquisition isn’t necessarily for widening to provide extra vehicle capacity. Many times it is to provide bike and/or ped accommodations either in accordance with complete streets or to just provide or upgrade this mode of travel. ROW is also acquired to be able to accommodate better drainage. It would be interesting to see the breakdown in ROW acquisition as it relates to its purpose.

  4. I can’t imagine there is a single state that is adding right of way to build bike and pedestrian projects at a rate that would be more than negligible, viewed statewide, with total capacity adding projects.

  5. States are acquiring ROW for a number of reasons from land banking to environmental mitigation to ROW preservation. The assumption that all the cost for ROW acquisition is purely for new capacity is wrong.

    The assumption that SGA makes that all money spent on major widening and reconstruction with added capacity is wrong. By definition, both of these activities require an existing road to be present. Thus, all of the money is not being spent on new capacity. In fact, major widening is often trying to improve the safety of te road with wider lanes and wider shoulders. NOT new capacity.

    The SGA analysis is wrong and their conclusions are false.

  6. I realize the public perception has seemed to be that this does not occur, but as someone involved in engineering and in right of way, I am aware that it happens on a regular basis. I think the public isn’t as aware of it because the project would not be formally designated as a bike/ped project even though it has created, improved, or expanded bike/ped accommodations. It just gets incorporated as part of the regular process now. I haven’t tried researching to see if there has been a study on the purposes of right of way acquisitions. But if this was published on a regular basis I think people would see that drainage and bike/ped accommodations are some of the most frequent reasons ROW is acquired.

  7. In my state (Oregon,) there was a recent proposal to either “repair” or “widen” (depending on who you talked to,) the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. You wouldn’t think it would be that complicated to define a $4.2B project as one or the other, (sure, it could be both,) but looking into it, some people believe that “capacity expansions” only happen when you build completely new roads on greenfields, and to those people everything else, (say, doubling the number of lanes for 5 miles,) is just a “safety improvement.” Unfortunately, some of those people work as highway engineers…

    I agree though, adding lanes is capacity expansion, and I’m pretty sure that Vermont, Michigan, and Tennessee follow that standard too.

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