Why a Fix-It-First Policy is Critical in Transportation Investments

I’ve been voicing support for President Obama’s American Jobs Act because of the strong investments it proposes for transportation infrastructure. What the Jobs Act doesn’t stipulate, though, is something that is critical to how we fund transportation projects in the future. We need a strong fix-it-first policy, both at a federal and state level, to direct transportation investment where it’s needed most.

If this Congress is serious about debt reduction and job creation, new highway construction is not the only way to go and should take a back seat to badly needed repairs to what we’ve already built. The logic of this holds water, and in fact a water-related analogy brings it home. If you have a broken roof with water pouring into your living room, and you have limited funds, what do you do? Fix the roof, or ignore it and build an addition to the house? The answer is simple, common sense: You fix it first.

And yet under current law, the bulk of transportation investments, particularly highway spending, is doled out by a simple formula, with little regard to the specific benefits a project might provide -- whether it helps reduce oil dependence or air pollution, if it connects people to jobs, or eases congestion. The funding process is politics-driven rather than policy-driven, which means money tends to flow toward projects that lend themselves to ribbon-cutting and photo ops, rather than the unglamorous fixing of potholes or track maintenance. 

A 2011 report from Smart Growth America found that states spent more than half their highway funds on building new roads – and less than half the pie went to maintaining the existing 99% of roads.

Deferred maintenance on our roads, according to the Carnegie Endowment, costs the nation $60 to $80 billion each year. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) says that  fixing a road that is already worn out can cost three times as much as keeping a road in good condition with regular maintenance. Rough roads cost drivers about $335 each year in extra vehicle operating costs, and as much as $746 a year for drivers in urban areas.

A strong fix-it-first policy would allocate substantial investment exclusively for repair and maintenance work. It would help avoid disasters like the collapse of Minnesota’s I-35 W bridge. A focus on fixing our existing infrastructure would restore faith in the federal transportation program, create good jobs, and save the average driver hundreds of dollars a year.

Investment in road and bridge repair creates 9 percent more jobs per dollar than new construction. (And public transit investment 19 percent more, according to this analysis.) We need to invest in our existing infrastructure first. The enormous backlog of deferred maintenance on our roads, rails and bridges is taking a hidden toll now, and could have a disastrous price in the future.

A strong federal transportation policy that requires states to maintain existing infrastructure – to fix it first -- will help us get out of this giant pothole.