Kirk Landers Editor Emeritus

When Congress Designs Roads

If this were a movie or a television sitcom, it would be funny.

By Kirk Landers

In March, Sen. David Vitter (R-La) introduced a bill that mandates a 50-year lifecycle cost analysis on infrastructure projects involving $5 million in federal funds or more. His bill also requires all states adopt the Mechanistic-Empirical Pavement Design Guide, among other things.

Well, who could oppose that, right? Being opposed to lifecycle cost analysis is like being opposed to Santa Claus. Who could possibly object to such fiscally responsible legislation?

But look again. Vitter’s bill addresses a problem that isn’t a problem. State departments of transportation have been using lifecyle cost analysis and the mechanistic-empirical design method since long before somebody whispered in Vitter’s ear that Congress should design highways.

Here’s another problem. Vitter’s $5 million threshold is suspiciously low. That takes in routine maintenance activities, like chip seals, mill-and-fill, simple overlays, full-depth concrete joint repairs and a large spectrum of normal bridge maintenance. Doing a 50-year analysis of maintenance interventions just adds mountains of paperwork and months of delays to a process that industry and government alike want to streamline.

So why would a small-government guy become a champion for more paperwork, more construction delays, and more office time for our dwindling population of highway and bridge engineers? It’s one thing to generate a lifecycle cost analysis for new construction or major reconstruction of a road or bridge — something that is already required on federal-aid projects — but expanding the scope to maintenance interventions is absurd. Who benefits from that?

But perhaps the most obscene aspect of Sen. Vitter’s bill is that it supposes there is enough money in the system to support a road program in which every intervention will produce a half century of service.

In point of fact, road and bridge management in America today is the science of compromise — how to deploy funds that can’t fix everything in such a way that the system’s deficits don’t get worse . . . or, when things are really bad, controlling the rate of decline in the system.

In today’s reality, the longest-lasting solution isn’t always the best solution when it comes to managing roads and bridges. As we have learned in the pages of Better Roads over the years, the professionals who manage our road and bridge assets most effectively are the ones who make their decisions based on what’s best for the long-term interests of the system, not for the individual road or bridge. In this era of insufficient budgets, highway managers are often faced with the choice of rebuilding one mile of pavement versus maintaining 10 miles. The last thing we need now is federal legislation dictating that road managers do the rebuild and let the rest of the system fail.

The decision to rebuild, maintain, replace or neglect pavements needs to be made on a state or local basis. The design of a new pavement and the selection of materials is always dependant upon local conditions — the soils, the environment, traffic loads and the availability of materials and contractors, to name just a few.

Highway engineering in America today is world class, from pavement design to maintenance practices to cost-effectiveness system management. Someone needs to tell Sen. Vitter we don’t have a problem designing and building long-life roads and bridges in America; we have a problem with weak-kneed elected officials who don’t want to pay for long life roads and bridges in America.