Money Pit: Potholes, Poor Roads Cost Motorists $335 Per Year

April 29, 2010
Volvo on pothole - flickr user comedy_nose

Volvo on pothole - flickr user comedy_nose

Think those deep potholes and frost heaves along the commute—and all the rattles and squeaks they elicit from your car—are costing you big in extra repairs and vehicle wear?

You're right! Awful road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion per year in additional repairs and operating costs—an average of $335 per motorist, nationally.

But in some states it's much worse: If you're in New Jersey, potholes are costing you $596. California isn't far behind, at $590, while Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Oklahoma all have their additional prices of $503, $473, and $457, respectively.

Georgia ranked best, with just $44 in additional annual operating costs because of rough roads, followed by Florida ($126), Alabama ($162), Oregon ($166), and Utah ($176).

This information comes from a new report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, brings the issue to light and hopes to lead to higher accountability in Washington.

$1 To Maintain, Or $7 To Rebuild

According to the AASHTO, reconstructing a road after 25 years of neglect can cost more than three times the amount needed to preserve the road in good condition over the entire time. And, according to the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, Kirk Steudle, it costs a dollar to keep a road in good condition for every $7 you'd have to spend to reconstruct it.

And as Congress, state legislators, and local politicians push for new bridges and highways, very little attention is paid to existing ones.

The authors blame a number of factors: failure to set focused transportation policies at the federal level; a lack of accountability for road and bridge maintenance; allowances that permit states to shift federal maintenance money over to other new road and bridge projects; and a "perverse incentives" system that rewards states with more funding for replacement when they neglect the existing infrastructure and divert the maintenance money elsewhere.

At the state level, officials tend to emphasize high-visibility projects rather than maintenance spending, which could save money in the long run, and again because of political interests, roads that might carry the majority of a state's traffic but be within a small area get far less funding altogether relative to the traffic.

Congessional earmarks—funding projects like the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska—also tilt spending away from maintenance, the report says, and keep the money from projects where funding is most urgently needed.

The report recommends that maintenance and repair need to be emphasized (as with the Fix It First policies in Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois), that states should be required to plan for future maintenance before building new roads, and that they should be rewarded for properly repairing and maintaining.

Potholes Aplenty In Metro Areas

Roadways in metropolitan areas are in the worst shape, according to the study, with just 37 percent in "good" condition, 40 percent in "fair" shape, and 23 percent in "mediocre" or "poor" condition. In rural areas, 61 percent were "good," 34 percent were "fair," and only five percent were deemed "mediocre" or "poor."

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

After Alaska, the states with the highest percentage of roads in poor or mediocre shape were Rhode Island, New Jersey, Vermont, and California.

About 71,000—or 12 percent—of all bridges are "structurally deficient," with the situation the worst in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. There are more than 185,000 highway bridges in the U.S. that are 50 years old (typically their intended service life) or more, and that number is expected to soar to more than 500,000 by 2050. The average age of U.S. bridges is 43.

Disrepair Costs Lives, Too

Poorly maintained roads cause accidents. The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that roadway conditions are a factor in about a third of traffic fatalities; so poor roadways are likely to have had an impact in 11,000 fatalities last year alone.

To see just what a mess our roads and bridges are in, and how hopeless government officials are making it, you'll want to read the full report. Just don't read it while you're walking down the street…or when you're standing on a bridge.

Top Metropolitan Areas (500,000 or more) with the Highest Additional Operating Costs Due to Rough Roads
1. Los Angeles, CA - $746
2. San Jose, CA - $732
3. San Francisco-Oakland, CA - $705
4. Tulsa, OK - $703
5. Honolulu, HI - $688

[Wired Autopia blog; U.S. PIRG]

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