The Capital Beltway — dark clouds overhead

by James A. Bacon

Beneath the surface, the Washington Post informs us, the Capital Beltway is crumbling. Writes Ashley Halsey III:

Under the surface of all but some recently restored segments, fissures are spreading, cracks are widening and the once-solid road bed that carries about a quarter-million cars a day is turning to mush. …

“With the older base layers under the asphalt, the surface is not able to absorb the pounding the way it used to,” said Doug Simmons, deputy highway administrator in Maryland, home to almost two-thirds of the 64-mile Beltway and to the more serious of the highway’s problems. “It is at that 50-year age point, which is too close to [the end of its life]. It’s a good example of the challenges we’re going to be facing not only in Maryland but other places in the country.”

Virginia, it seems, is not as badly off as Maryland. First, it has significantly fewer miles of Beltway to maintain. And secondly, large swaths of highway have been redone as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, the I-95/Beltway “mixing bowl” interchange and the Beltway express lanes. But Simmons’ warning does apply to the rest of Virginia’s Interstate system, very little of which has received such makeovers.

Bacon’s bottom line: Yes, it’s going to cost a lot of money to fix Virginia’s interstate highways as they approach the end of their useful lives. But there’s another point to me made here: The fiscal predicament posed by the decaying Beltway is a perfect illustration of Charles Marohn’s thesis of what has gone so disastrously wrong with infrastructure policy in this country: The federal government built the Beltway but Virginia and Maryland inherited the responsibility for maintaining it. That wasn’t so bad early on, but the problem mounts as the Beltway reaches the end of its design life some six decades later. Now the states are stuck with the tab.

Depreciation is the way businesses account for the fact that stuff wears out and must be replaced eventually. Businesses pay attention because depreciation is deducted from their earnings. But governments don’t have earnings — they operate on a cash-in, cash-out basis — and elected officials don’t pay no heed to depreciation at all. As a consequence, neither Virginia nor Maryland, nor any other state to my knowledge, has set aside funds to pay for massive structural repairs that their interstates will require. Aggravating the problem, as the Post points out, it’s one thing to build an interstate highway when there’s no traffic on it, and quite another to rebuild it is when it traversed by thousands of drivers per hour.

Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation-financing plan will raise some $800 million a year for new construction. Virginia’s politicians will spend as much of it as they can on new projects that yield highly visible, short-term gains, caring little about the life-cycle costs. The flaw in thinking applies to mass transit just as much as it does to the interstates — just look at the condition of the Washington Metro!

Virginia needs to do at least two things:

First, state agencies need to conduct life-cycle analysis for all new infrastructure projects. It’s not enough to know how much a project will cost up-front. We need to know how much it will cost to maintain the assets and to replace them. Then we need to set aside funds, a little bit each year, to carry the project through its full life cycle.

Second, state agencies need to get a handle on what kind of liabilities we face for old infrastructure projects. When will critical assets wear out, and how much money will we need to replace them? If the money isn’t there — trust me, it isn’t — then we need to ask where it will come from. Before the McDonnell administration runs off with its new-found tax revenue to indulge its transportation wish list, let’s make sure we have the money to repair what we have when the bill comes due.

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22 responses to “Life Cycle Blues”

  1. remember the plaintive cry of the yahoos complaining about tolls?

    ” why should we give away roads that have already been paid for”?

    re: “the states are stuck with the tab”

    this is yet another common misunderstanding.

    the Interstates were paid for by the Feds.

    nope. the Interstates were paid for by the Federal tax on gasoline collected from each state.

    the states were ALWAYS on the hook for maintenance of the interstates unless you want the Fed to increase the gas tax or redirect the current funds from new construction to maintenance.

    Unlike the Europeans, we build roads on the cheap so we can build more roads but in general our road bed depths are shallower which means they are more suseptible to wear damage than if they were deeper but our overall policy has been to build them shallower so we’d have more money to build more roads.

    When people hear the facts of life, they immediately jump to the “money is wasted” complaint but the truth is we pay about 50 cents a gallon on fuel taxes and the Europeans spend about $2.

    there is no free lunch but there is no shortage of folks who as Col Jessep once said ” can’t stand the truth”…. i.e. roads are “free” once built and we’d have plenty of money and better roads if VDOT was not pissing it away.

  2. How much of the damage is caused by heavy trucks? What percentage of those costs are paid by the cost-causers?

    1. there are heavy trucks in Europe also but they build their beds deep enough to support them.

      for us – we – the consumers will end up paying one way or the other. Either we’ll pay higher taxes to fix roads or we’ll pay higher delivery rates if we tax shippers more.

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    Wahoos pay tolls? Works for me. Oh, yahoos… Speaking of which, can you imagine how the yahoos would react if they found that even 5-10 percent of the transportation tax and fee revenues were being put into a long term reserve fund for future replacements, which is what is really required? I do not know the details of the private road projects in Virginia but I suspect they do just that, for the reason’s Bacon delineated — they face REAL accounting rules and real accountability to shareholders. But then….they don’t own the roads, do they? Usually the contract provides for an end of the franchise and perhaps (again, I don’t know the details) the asset that comes back to the state is crumbling.

    TMT — trucks pay much more in fees and fuel taxes, especially if they are caught being overweight, but the argument over whether they pay enough is probably eternal.

    1. Breckinridge.

      Since then, the General Assembly has doubled the fees. Wow!

  4. good point Breckenridge!

    yes… the companies that “own” the toll roads DO have to account for maintenance costs – in their tolls whereas VDOT spends life in road purgatory trying to figure out how much of the 17.5 tax should go to maintenance and how much to new construction.

    I still go back to this. Take the county you live in. Tell me how much money you and your fellow residents generate in gas taxes. Now tell me how much your county expends on maintenance and operations.

    When you and I do not have even this basic info… it leads to …speculation about what VDOT does with all that money and suspicions that they waste it or give it to other counties.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Governamental accounting is a sham of the highest order.

    Let’s take depreciation. In commercial enterprises it is a cost that reduces accrual profit. However, there is no guarantee that the company will have the cash on hand to buy the replacement equipment when the old equipment (being depreciated) fails. That’s a balance sheet question.

    The scam in Virginia is to declare a budget to be balanced without accounting for depreciation. Or, for that matter, fully funding the retirement systems.

    That’s why I always laugh when some blowhard governor says, “Unlike in Washington, our state constitution mandates a balanced budget.”.

    That might mean something if it also mandated full, accrual accounting.

    What’s next? Dick Saslaw stomping around and saying, “I am shocked and dismayed to find that roads eventually wear out and have to be rebuilt.”?

    1. is there any govt local, state, Federal – anywhere that accounts for depreciation? And there are more than a few companies that have also underfunded their pensions – and worse – just ran off and let the taxpayer pay the pensions of those abandoned by those corporates.

      VDOT does have an asset management plan and if memory serves, it’s not terrible.

      there’s always been pressure on VDOT to build roads and VDOT has tried to maintain allocations to maintenance and operations but the politics of new roads is powerful.

      To the Fed and Virginia’s credit – I’ve seen changes at the local level where both the county and school are having to move to GAAP accounting which in turn in causing changes in how they represent their future liabilities for pensions.

      I guess from one perspective it’s a half glass empty/full conundrum.

      but politics is people and we have a bunch of people who remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that roads are NEVER paid for and every year maintenance and operations suck up money which just “disappears” down a rat hole is you listen to some folks.

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This of course is yet another powerful article showing why we need to build up existing communities so they reduce traffic on existing roads while they also powerfully generate the more revenue to maintain our existing roads.

    Conversely it is lunacy for Virginia to do the reverse – namely to spend two billion dollars for new roads like the north south transit connector yet farther out into the hinder-lands that will increase traffic on preexisting roads while at the same time diluting our means to maintain them.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III




  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    correction; “while they also powerfully generate YET more revenue to maintain our existing roads.”

  8. oh yes.. the other thing.. the more roads you build – the higher your maintenance and operations costs ….

    but again… what hurts us is that we don’t know the numbers in part because the State and VDOT are not inclined to provide them.

    You can go to Commonwealth Datapoint and almost get to the point where you can identify spending in some agency on paper clips – but VDOT’s road finances remain inscrutable at the local level – in terms of maintenance and operations.

    So I once again challenge anyone who reads here to provide for their own county or city – how much money the citizens in your fair jurisdiction generates in state fuel taxes ….

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    That, Larry, I suspect his is because VDOT does not want you to know. Because if you know the facts (namely what is really going on), you have power. You can challenge they’re decisions, forcing them to justify those decisions. This is something that scares my people in power to death.

    So VDOT like the Fairfax County planners hide the facts, keeping taxpayers in the dark, so as to maintain their corporate power. This sort of abuse has been around as long as Pharaohs controlled Egypt. The result is huge ego driven waste benefiting the few power brokers. The result is huge dis allocations of moneys spent on wrong decisions benefiting the few power brokers that we have been living with now for 40 some years.

    And it continues with projects such as the north south transit corridor proposal. Its got to stop.

  10. re: VDOT does not want you to know. If the GA told VDOT to make the info available they would. I mean, hells, bells, VDOT basically does everything the GA tells them to do whether it’s UDAs or reviewing locality comp plans.

    No.. I would say the GA and localities don’t want you to know because if you did, other questions would follow and it would become “messy”.

    Notice that we do not have this problem with schools or law enforcement – the other 2 “biggies” in terms of state funding.

    You could relatively easily find out how much Arlington spends on schools and how much they get from the state – and by the way – you can easily refute the premise of the national study that claimed Virginia spends more on administrators than teachers… those facts are easily obtained at the local level.

    Because Arlington is one of two counties responsible for their own roads (not the Fed/State “signed” roads) – just the others – you could likely find out how much Arlington IS spending for improvements, maintenance and operations.

    But you’d be on a fool’s errand in Virginia’s other 98 counties.

  11. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Yes, Larry, and why is it that these 98 other counties keep this information from their citizens?

  12. well.. I do not care for conspiracy theories myself so it would be out of character for me to presume a massive conspiracy involving all the members of the GA and all all the BOS/officials of the 98 counties.

    I just think perhaps for different reasons there are several constituency groups that don’t think that info would lead to good things if voters got wind of it.

    Both the local officials and the GA elected from the local want voters to “see” road improvements that demonstrate that their taxes are being spent on things that benefit them – but getting a precise accounting would start people to looking at dollars in and dollars out and at some point the ugly truth of how much maintenance and operations costs would fall on the table also.

    Let’s be honest here. We here the phrase “low information voters” bandied about these days – often from groups that believe that it’s “easy” to fool voters and sell them candidates the same way that yokels will buy Tide and Chevrolets and that “too much” information put in the laps of people who like life’s dilemmas simple if dogmatic… would stir things up in a bad way.

    what do you think Reed?

  13. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I agree generally with what you say.

    Knowledge is power. Holding things close is a natural human tendency, particularly for those who thrive on power. It’s also good business for those having the information, or can readily access it, or influence those who hold it. That’s why when you come to town on business you hire the best lawyer you can afford in the county if you want “to get things done’. He’s got the knowledge or knows those who do, and he has a track record showing that he can get the results you want. It’s always been this way, and likely always will be that way to a point. But now more folks need that same information too. And they need the chance to better influence the result based on it. Why not? With technology it should only be a fingertip away for everyone.

    But perhaps the lack of it is also one reason (among others) that bad results and decisions are often made over and over again. I suspect the Virginia has a longer and deeper history of this paternal view of governing than most states, a going back at least to the Byrds and likely far longer. But, in any case, its likely time for some change.

    Any and all institutions will keep under wraps whatever they can simply to control the narrative. That is why publicly traded companies are required to provide detailed annual reports that show the state of the company in all the relevant details that are necessary for intelligent investment decisions by any and all outsiders, whether investors, potential investors or not. So surely too state and local government should have the same obligation to its taxpayers as companies have to shareholders, and those thinking about moving in or investing there. What is that current obligation I wonder?

    Surely this reporting need not be too burdensome. One presumes that any good government efficiently and honestly does this data collection and analysis anyway, if only to plan for and make good decisions. If it does not do so, then there no good reason why not and indeed red flags then need to be lowered by correcting such lack of reporting to its own taxpayers.

    Thus, surely STATEWIDE road maintenance schedules, annual budgetary projections, and source of funds analysis for it should be readily available. So should things like Statewide employee figures broken down by task of those working in public schools. So should relevant information that goes into any long term important decisions that formulate and update county and city comprehensive plans. How much is now readily available?

    Often I see a lot more fluff than substance on these matters, as if local government were chambers of commerce, rather than laying out what citizens need to know to understand what’s going on and coming down the road. People ought to know why they sit in rush hour traffic 3 hours every work day of their lives. And what their government is doing to fix it. Or what their government is doing to make in worse by yet more bad decisions. Like ones that entice yet more people into yet another land rush. One that may well lead those there and those yet to come to nowhere but more congestion and higher taxes to pay for the most recent short term fix, easy way out, or greed induced government decision and the one after that.

    Seems like the times demand more quality information that is hard enough for interested taxpayers to see problems coming and reach informed judgement on the best way forward for them in their own personal view.

    For one example – is not 40 years of horrendous traffic bad enough? Isn’t it now time not trust that your government acting alone is going to fix it. After all decision makers find ways to avoid the pain. Unlike the working taxpayer guy who moved to Loudoun in 1990 thinking he was going escape the traffic nightmare that had closed in on him on Fairfax back then.

  14. you said some good stuff…

    Many of Va counties, especially the rural poor ones would not have a road network if it were not for the “paternalistic” Byrd government, eh?

    I’m not justifying the “paternalistic” mindset – only that the average person both back then and now is woefully ill equipped even if they had the info to truly understand but at the same time I will fully admit that not having the info at all – breeds more and wider ignorance.

    For instance, most folks simply do not recognize that 600 series roads are totally state funded and controlled whereas State/Federally signed road are ‘different’ in a number of ways that does affect everything from design standards to maintenance standards. THAT information IS available but how many take the time to find out and understand it?

    Most folks do not realize how schools are really funded either. They do not realize that the state ONLY funds SOL positions and the remainder is totally out of local taxpayers pockets.

    How can you NOT have condescending paternalistic governance when the vast majority are willingly lacking the facts?

    How can you be an elected official who listens to a constituent who simply does not know his head from a hole in the ground telling the elected official how to do business?

    it breeds contempt because the elected guy – actually runs for election – and he actually knows what voters listen to – and it ain’t the facts.. and in fact, if you talk the facts.. voters will think you are a pompous airbag. They basically want the politician to tell them what they want to hear, right?

    I’ve heard politicians try to tell people the facts on roads and road funding and the voters end up calling them liars and accuse them of stealing the money for other projects, wasting money on coffee breaks and workers who stand around doing nothing, etc.

    after awhile, the elected guy “gets it” and performs the way that voters want him/her to perform.

    that’s pretty cynical eh?

  15. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “that’s pretty cynical eh?” say’s Larry.

    No, not at all Larry – in the end, it is all about what works best given the particular circumstances at that particular time and at that particular place.

    Like for example, I am as parochial as anyone else. All I can speak for based on my experience is my own experience. So perhaps my views have relevance to parts of places round the DC beltway and that’s all.

  16. well.. we all tend to know best our own local circumstances but there’s opportunity to compare it to other things and other places to get past
    assumed stuff.

    our system was set up to have elected represent us and you know what… the Constitution said nothing about what is right or wrong – only that they represent us.

    so if we are uneducated about stuff but we have strong feelings about it – strong enough to make voting choices, we do it.

    and my point is that our Governance is not so much a reflection of our elected officials – as it is ….US… 😉

    successful politicians do not go against the wishes of the folks who vote. Now there’s a whale of a lot of different ways to do stuff that not supported by people and still get away with the public “liking” you ESPECIALLY if the voters don’t really understand the issue in the first place. Then the elected get a free pass….

  17. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    That’s why accurate, relevant, timely, and complete public information is essential. It’s also why many cultures, including many locally grown cultures, specialize in hiding, manipulating, spinning and twisting accurate information for personal advantage. In straight talking honest society (as opposed to far too much of our polite society), this sort of conduct is called what it is: Lying.

  18. the true solution is for Americans to do less driving. Period. And the car culture down under is providing an understanding of how to communicate with Americans so that we drive less. MWCOG is trying to talk to us about this BUT every American project — sans one in Bellingham WA — is all about the commute trip which is the hardest trip for anyone to change BECAUSE being late for work leads to job loss, therefore very few people experiment with new behavior on the commute trip.

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