Some of the more sophisticated leaders in highway management circles are beginning to embrace the notion that roads and bridges are public assets. This concept has always gotten lip service, but modern methods of inventorying infrastructure and accounting for its condition has changed the game completely.
Today, sophisticated managers can assign replacement values to pavements and bridge structures, and they can assign cost-of-repair liabilities to those assets based on current inventories and inspections.
The sooner this practice becomes widespread and becomes part of the public dialog between government and the citizenry, the better. As things stand, all but a handful of Americans believe the citizenry has no stake in pavement conditions other than the inconvenience of bumpy roads and heavy traffic.
Because of this, in the past six years we’ve had one U.S. president oppose a federal fuel tax increase because it might cool down a strong economy, and more recently we’ve had another president who opposes a fuel tax increase because it might threaten our weak economy.
In both cases, the logical fallacy at play is that there is no real downside to putting off investment in roads and bridges.
But there is a downside. Our pavements and our bridge structures are capital assets, like the machines in a heavy equipment fleet, or the robotic welders in a construction equipment factory. They have a lifecycle, a beginning, a middle and an end. So the asset value of any given stretch of roadway changes with each passing year, according to the age and condition of its components.
When we postpone replacing a cracked and pockmarked road surface for several years past its optimum repair date, we invite water to penetrate deeper into the roadway, corrupting intermediate layers and even the base. Instead of a superficial surface layer repair, we taxpayers end up facing full-depth repairs or even reconstruction – and the asset value of the road declines precipitously. It is a different kind of debt, but it is just as real as deficit spending.
Should we be forestalling long overdue investment in our road and bridge assets because our economy is weak, as President Obama says? The suggestion is just as preposterous as when President Bush opposed a fuel tax increase to protect a strong economy.
We the people need to invest in some things, no matter what the economic times. As individuals and families, we still pay for food and shelter, essential clothing and medical care, and so on. As a group, a nation, we still must pay for things, too. Defense, education, social security.
Roads should be one of those things we pay for, no matter what. They are an investment we have made and must protect, they are absolutely basic to our economic system, and the money we invest in them will do more to stimulate our economy than virtually any other investment we can make.
Don’t let your Representative, your Senators or your President off the hook on this issue. Keep on them. Keep on them all to protect our infrastructure investment and keep America moving.