Financial District

Buy New or Used?

A new report on the repair/maintain/expand debate

By John Latta

A new report argues that spending decisions made at a state level are causing road conditions to get worse in parts of the country.

The report was produced by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation (see Editor’s Note below).

The report makes these key points:

• Rehabilitating a road that has deteriorated is substantially more expensive than keeping that road in good condition.

• In spite of an enormous repair backlog, the vast majority of states continue to inadequately fund road repair projects.

• Neglecting repair and preservation cost taxpayers billions of dollars in preventable expenses.

The report examined road conditions in each state and D.C., and recommends changes at both state and federal levels in spending priorities.

“Decades of disproportionate spending by states on road expansion at the expense of regular repair have left many state roads in poor condition,” the report states. “By underfunding repair and allowing roads to fall out of good condition, state leaders are choosing the most expensive type of repair possible, as rehabilitating a road that has completely deteriorated is substantially more expensive than keeping that road in good condition in the first place.”

According to the report, South Carolina spent 18 percent of its highway capital budget on repair projects between 2004 and 2008, but spent 41 percent on expansion. “The percentage of South Carolina roads in ‘good’ [based on FHWA data] condition during this time dropped from 45 to 33 percent, the largest decline of any state.”

The report also argues, ironically, that dollars spent on new road construction are potentially adding to the problem. “With every dollar spent on new construction, states add to a road system they are already failing to adequately maintain. As a result, states face a large and growing financial burden.”

The answer is to invest wisely in repair and preservation – a process that actively reduces the scale of future costs. The report cites American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) data that says one dollar spent to keep a road in good condition avoids anywhere from $6 to $14 needed later to rebuild the road once it has fallen apart.

Examining state funding priorities and the relationship between spending on expansion versus repair, the report found that between 2004 and 2008, states spent $37.9 billion annually on repair and expansion of roads and highways. Of these funds, says the report, 57 percent went to road widening and new road construction; that is, to 1.3 percent of the roads worked on. At the same time, 43 percent of funds was spent on the preservation of existing roads that make up 98.7 percent of the system.

“Prioritizing repair and preservation makes good fiscal sense and brings a host of additional benefits,” says the report. And not only are state taxes being wasted, “Federal funds built a large proportion of these major state roads, and allowing states to under-invest in repair and preservation greatly reduces the value of these federal investments.”v

Editor’s Note: Smart Growth America says it is “the only national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for and leading coalitions to bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide.” Check it out at

Taxpayers for Common Sense says it is a nonpartisan budget watchdog serving as an independent voice for American taxpayers. Its mission is to achieve a government that spends taxpayer dollars responsibly and operates within its means. Check it out at

Priority imbalance?

98.7% (used) vs. 1.3% (new)

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