By Angie Schmitt, March 12, 2014
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
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.
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.
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
“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
Rather than adding capacity, between 2009 and 2011, Michigan actually reduced the number of state-controlled lane miles by 17.