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Fix-It-First

New Report Takes on ‘Perverse Incentives’ to De-Emphasize Bridge Repair

When Minneapolis' I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007, lawmakers from both parties vowed to focus
on shoring up the nation's aging infrastructure. But when the public
spotlight faded from the issue of infrastructure repair, Congress
showed little appetite for setting aside maintenance aid that did not hold the promise of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or campaign donations.

pie.pngThe
state of repair for America's urban roads, according to federal
maintenance data. In rural areas, 61% are rated "good." (Chart: U.S.
PIRG)

Meanwhile, existing federal transportation formulas
dole out bridge repair money based on the size of each state's
maintenance backlog. But up to half of that repair funding can be
redirected to other purposes, such as building new roads, with the
assurance of continued largess -- as long as local bridges remain
unfixed.

That little-known provision is one of many "perverse incentives"
highlighted in a report on road and bridge maintenance released today
by the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups' (PIRG) education fund.

The
rules governing federal aid for interstate maintenance, according to
the U.S. PIRG, are equally skewed to ensure older roads keep crumbling.
Take the cases of New York, where 567 miles of road were rated in less
than "good" condition by the U.S. DOT (see categories in the above pie
chart), and Florida, where 13 miles were in the same aging state.

One might think that New York would receive more maintenance money from Washington. But as today's report points out:

[B]ecauseof New York and Florida’s similar number of Interstate lane miles, bothstates received about the same amount of Interstate Maintenance Programfunding over the last five years — $182 million for New York and $193million for Florida, annually.

Transportation
policymakers tend to be inundated by reports, but the U.S. PIRG hopes
to aim its research beyond a simple call for extra repair funding in
the next long-term federal infrastructure bill.

"We're
hoping the report will be a call to look hard at the actual politics
behind these
problems," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall, one of the
document's three primary co-authors, said in an interview. "This is not
simply a problem [solved by] pouring more money into the system."

Baxandall
and his colleagues also attempted to tally the real-world costs of
inattention to road and bridge repair needs. Their report notes that
car maintenance bills incurred by travelerson older roads is
significantly higher in major cities: Drivers in Los Angeles, San Jose,
and San Francisco all paying more than $700 extra per year, according
to the most recent data released by the American Association of State
Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

And given that the political climate suggests
Congress will be hard-pressed to pass a new six-year infrastructure
bill before 2011 -- depriving pro-repair advocates of their principal
vehicle for broad "fix-it-first" reform -- the U.S. PIRG report also maps the route to progress on the state level in the meantime.

The
report's authors highlight laws on the books in Illinois, New Jersey,
and Maryland that "requir[e] state DOTs to focus on the rehabilitation
of existing facilities before building new highways."

Baxandall
said he was particularly heartened by Maryland officials' move to set
up clear metrics for determining their progress on bringing the local
built environment into a state of good repair. "If it can happen in the
states," he said, "it will [happen on] the federal level."

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