Talking Asphalt: Big problem, no simple solution – March 2013

I recently read a very interesting and disturbing newspaper article (McClatchy Newspapers, February 3, 2013). I’m sure this article was not unique, but it did a good job of describing a big problem for our highways system. The article described some of the challenges we face in preserving our highways and bridges. In case you did not see it, here are some of the points that resonated with me.

To the point, we face a tremendous funding challenge. Some examples cited included:


  • In the next two decades, Texas faces a $120 billion shortfall of funds to meet preservation needs.
  • California officials estimate that 60 percent of their roads and 25 percent of their bridges need to be repaired or replaced, at a projected cost of $70 billion, with only about $18 billion available for the work.
  • North Carolina faces a $22 billion shortage over the next 30 years to keep its roads in the current condition – not to make improvements – just to stay where they are.
  • Our oldest interstates, particularly the bridges, are reaching the end of their design life. There are thousands of bridges, built in the 1960s, that are in bad shape. 

This is probably not news to you. Most agencies face these same challenges. There is general consensus that nationally, we need to invest trillions. According to the article, “The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the country needs $14 billion in additional federal funds each year just to maintain highways and $50 billion more to improve them.”

There is agreement on the need but not on how to pay for it or how to prioritize the needs. Further, there is no single, obvious cause for how we got to this point. Some states have raised their funding mechanisms, primarily gasoline taxes. Others have not raised their gas tax for years. And, the federal gas tax does not generate nearly enough funds to meet the needs. Also, for many years, the focus was on building new roads – rather than fixing the existing ones.

Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Al Biehler was quoted as saying, “If you don’t put money into fixing things, there will be more things to fix.” Well said! The longer we wait, the more deterioration takes place – and the more it will cost to fix or replace. It’s like waiting to fix a leaking roof – you can put it off, but it will get worse and cost more, when the repairs are finally made.    

The article quantified this effect by citing information from the National Center for Pavement Preservation Center at Michigan State University. Their findings show that every dollar spent to maintain a road in the first 15 years of its life saves $6 to $14 in maintenance costs after 20 years. That’s a very good return on the investment.

We need to come up with a plan for preserving our investment in our highways. And we need to do it quickly. The wear and tear is continuing and it is a “Pay me now, or pay me (more) later” situation.

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