America’s (and Virginia’s) Road-Maintenance Deficit

repair_prioritiesby James A. Bacon

State transportation departments across the country are spending billions of dollars to build new roads and highways even as they fail to maintain the road networks they already have, according to a new report by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Between 2009 and 2011, the most recent years for which Federal Highway Administration numbers are available, the 50 states collectively spent $20.4 billion annually to build new or expanded roads. That sum was sufficient to add 8,822 lane-miles, increasing the road network by slightly less than 1%. Over the same period, expenditures averaged only $16.5 billion annually for repairing and preserving the other 99%, states “Repair Priorities 2014.”

The study drives home the picture of a nation that has built a fiscally unsustainable transportation infrastructure. Virginia is no exception. According to data in the report, the quality of Virginia roads slipped badly over that three-year period, and the state has the third largest repair backlog in the country. Some key Virginia statistics from the report:

  • $402 million per year spent on road expansion (68%)
  • $192 million spent on road repair (32%)
  • 43% of roads reported in good condition, 2008
  • 31% of roads reported in good condition, 2011
  • 8% of roads reported in poor condition, 2008
  • 18% of roads reported in poor condition, 2011
  • $3.089 billion annual investment needed in repair and preservation to bring all roads into a state of good repair over a 20-year period.

If those numbers are accurate, it’s a devastating indictment of Virginia transportation policy. As the study points out, if road conditions are allowed to decline, rehabilitating them to good condition gets proportionally more expensive. Every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition avoids $6 to $14 needed later to rebuild a road that has deteriorated significantly. Assuming the numbers are accurate, even with the McDonnell administration’s transportation tax increases, Virginia has no chance of bringing all of its roads up to good condition, at least not in our lifetimes. Indeed, even though state law requires VDOT to prioritize maintenance spending over new construction, it appears that the Commonwealth was doing quite the opposite.

Before panicking, I want to make sure the numbers are, in fact, accurate. It seems difficult to square the FHWA statistics with recently released VDOT Maintenance & Operations figures. According to Chief Engineer Garrett Moore, VDOT is spending $1.86 billion this fiscal year on operations and maintenance. That’s a whole lot more than FHWA’s $192 million.

Rayla Bellis with Smart Growth America explained that the apparent discrepancy likely results from how expenditures are categorized. “Our report looks specifically at capital spending (a category defined by FHWA). That category includes things like pavement resurfacing, widenings, etc. But it doesn’t include things like snow removal, traffic operations and other expenditures.”

I will check to see how VDOT responds to the numbers in this report.

Moore’s report also paints a picture of improving road conditions between 2010 and 2013 in apparent conflict with the SGA data showing worsening conditions:


Comparing the data from the Smart Growth America report and VDOT data may be apples-to-oranges. The SGA report captures the period between 2008 and 2011, when VDOT was still smarting from the recession, while Moore’s numbers reflect more recent years and improved economic conditions. Also, SGA was looking at “good” and “poor” in a good/fair/poor rating scale while Moore appears to be tracking good/fair road conditions.

VDOT may have a perfectly reasonable explanation for the numbers, so I’ll withhold judgment. But if it doesn’t, Virginians should be up in arms. With all the new money flowing in, there is no excuse for short-changing maintenance. Not only do the “Repair Priorities 2014” numbers suggest that state is creating a fiscal time bomb, but driving on sub-par roads costs Virginians millions of dollars a year in car repairs. (The national estimate is $67 billion yearly, which works out to more than $1 billion annually based on Virginia’s share of the national population.)

How some other states do it. Recognizing the folly of building new roads while existing roads are deteriorating, a few states have halted the expansion of their road networks. In a conference call coinciding with the study roll-out, Richard Tretault, a Vermont transportation official, said Hurricane Irene forced a re-think of transportation policies in his state. Vermont has prioritized maintenance of existing roads and, post-Hurricane Irene, reconstructing flood-prone stretches. The state has even considered divesting some roads.

At the county level, Michigan has turned lightly traveled paved roads back to gravel, and it has subjected some roads to “road diets” — converting four-lanes to three lanes + a bike lane, said Polly Kent, an administrator with Michigan’s intermodal policy division.

The policy of Tennessee, whose road conditions ranked second best in the report, is to maintain good roads throughout the state. The Volunteer State budgets recurring costs like maintenance and repairs first, said Steve Allen, strategic transportation investment director, and only after those needs have been met does the state allocate funds for construction. 

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4 responses to “America’s (and Virginia’s) Road-Maintenance Deficit”

  1. Jim B and I don’t see eye-to-eye politically sometimes but I have mostly kudos for his transportation tomes!

    but if you check the VDOT 6yr Database, you’ll see that things like guard rails and re-paving, etc are classified as “improvements”, capital expenditures.

    you’ll see this sometimes when they “mill” a section of roadway . scraping off the existing asphalt layers and then laying down a brand new thicker layer – as opposed to fixing potholes or pulling ditches or cutting vegetation.

    second point: re: ” …
    At the county level, Michigan has turned lightly traveled paved roads back to gravel, ”

    in Michigan and 46 other states – secondary roads and subdivision roads are the responsibility of the counties not the state – no like Virginia.

    remember the three road classifications – 1. arterial, 2- connection, 3 -local access.

    in most states 1. is the job of the state and 3 is the job of the locality and 2. is both.

    Virginia’s problem is that it has the 3rd largest road system in the country – because, unlike 46 other states, it maintains secondary roads and subdivision roads.

    the guy that lives in a subdivision – his fuel taxes essentially go to maintain his subdivision road whereas folks who don’t live in subdivisions – their taxes pay for public roads.

    re: “The study drives home the picture of a nation that has built a fiscally unsustainable transportation infrastructure. ”

    that’s an interesting observation in that what is the DOT supposed to do if there is no political will for increasing funding by raising taxes, or instituting tolls – while people are screaming bloody murder about congestion relief and how not building more roads hurts the state economically?

    Would we really want VDOT to stop improving existing roads and making every new road a toll road or devolve secondary and subdivision roads to the counties?

    VDOT can’t do this. the Virginia GA would have to.

    we have no appetite to do this… or let’s put it another way – we have made changes… to the gas tax and tolls – are they initial but inadequate baby steps or are we headed for a more sustainable system?

    but again, I point out that for one’s own county -most of us have no clue how much tax money we generate for transportation much less how much we spend for new/improvements and M&O.

    without knowing this – what exactly would we advocate for?

    it seem like we have a lack of knowledge – fundamentally – to really understand much less advocate.

  2. let me go one step further tying this back directly.

    re: ”

    $402 million per year spent on road expansion (68%)
    $192 million spent on road repair (32%)
    43% of roads reported in good condition, 2008
    31% of roads reported in good condition, 2011
    8% of roads reported in poor condition, 2008
    18% of roads reported in poor condition, 2011
    $3.089 billion annual investment needed in repair and preservation to bring all roads into a state of good repair over a 20-year period.”

    if you do not know how these stats play out in your own county or city -what exactly would you advocate for?

    and with those statistics – how do they apply to interstates, US/state signed and secondary/subdivision?

    If 1/2 of the “not well maintained stats” applied to secondary and subdivision, what would you think?

    I’ve heard people complain during snow storms that their secondary and subdivision roads don’t get plowed right away because the plows are out clearing the interstates and Primary roads.

    I tend to agree instead with VDOT. what are the priorities? not only with plowing, but maintenance and operations.

    VDOT has been transitioning to a chip seal type surface for subdivisions as of late – and people are complaining that they want “real” asphalt.

    I continue to believe that people don’t know the facts. Perhaps some of them don’t want to know the facts anyhow – but it sure makes it easy to heap blame on VDOT – even when VDOT is struggling with trying to stretch the dollars they do have – and have no real way themselves to increase dollars.

    It’s time for Virginia to do what 46 other states have done – and that’s devolve secondary(access) roads and subdivision roads to the counties (like they already do with cities and towns) and let the counties decide how they want to prioritize and how much taxpayers want to pay – or not.

    just as with our schools – citizens do not know what their locality is spending on with local discretionary funding over and above what the State requires for matching SOQs.

    Our problem is that people at the local level – are essentially clueless on the financial facts.. which I think is a sorry excuse for governance but apparently the “virginia way”.

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    Addressing the maintenance deficit was one reason I long advocated for the transportation tax increases that passed a year ago and finally are now kicking in and should begin to address some of these issues. I was working the issue more than a decade ago. Glad to see Bacon get religion. But now I expect Jim and his Smart Growth pals to push maintenance, maintenance to the Nth degree because, as always, the obvious goal is to build not one more mile of pavement period.

    I think Larry might be surprised to find out just how much control county administrators and county supervisors have over maintenance spending on secondary roads (and some primaries) in their locality. Unless things have changed radically since I last paid close attention, those priority lists and budgets go through the local government, even if VDOT then manages the work.

    1. re: “country control” they do “control” the prioritization of the 6yr secondary road budget -.. and this word is important – allocation.

      so they cannot add more projects than VDOT says they can.

      on maintenance, VDOT pretty much calls the shots but will respond to requests to look at trouble spots and issues – within a certain dollar value.

      Not unusual for VDOT to answer along the lines of ” we were thinking about doing something about that.. in X timeframe when we had enough Y dollars to do it.

      And VDOT calls the shots on the length of the segments and the phasing whereas two counties Henrico and Alexandria and all cities and towns in Va have much more control over their roads.

      but my point is that the average person and that includes most BOS are clueless as to how much fuel tax and other transportation taxes their county generates … most don’t even have a bad guess… much less a precise one.

      and they are similarly clueless as to how much money VDOT spends on their county on maintenance… and to a certain extent new projects and improvements unless they take the time to go total up the numbers in the 6yr database… and that’s no mean trick when the 6yr database is a “rolling” database that has different funding sources and different costs for PE, right-of-way, construction….

      My view is that when you see a state level report by VDOT or other entities it means little to people in terms of how it impacts their county.

      they have no clue how many of their county roads are considered “good” or “deficient” or in between ..nor when they are scheduled for maintenance or improvements.

      it’s a huge black hole except VDOT does show up at the BOS meeting to give status reports and receive input and pleas for attention to certain issues.

      but the worst thing bar none is that BOS have no clue when they approve growth what the transportation consequences are in terms of costs of improvement and timeframe to get the improvements.

      I’m not blaming anyone.. but I am trying to tell it like it really is because if we really want to understand – we have to seek the truth – not what we want to believe and the truth is found in facts and if the facts are not present – there is no truth and no accountability.

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