States are spending too much on new roads while neglecting their existing transportation network, according to a new report by two research and advocacy groups: Smart Growth America, which seeks to curb urban sprawl and worsening environmental conditions, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, which searches federal budgets for wasteful spending. 

Across all states, about 45 percent of transportation spending went to repairs between 2009 and 2011, and 55 percent funded new roads, according to the group’s analysis of federal highway data. Those proportions are relatively even, but in seven states repairs accounted for less than 20 percent of transportation spending. In about half of states, spending on repairs declined between 2008 and 2011. Part of the problem, the authors say, is that elected officials gravitate to new projects that are highly visible rather than small repairs that may go unnoticed by the public. (See a table of states and their respective spending on repairs vs. new infrastructure.)

The report’s authors note that the percentage of American roads the Federal Highway Administration rates as in "poor" condition is increasing, as is the cost to repair them. It would cost states $45.2 billion to repair existing roads, about three times as much as they currently spend each year. As roads deteriorate, they can cause traffic delays, damage vehicles and even lead to car accidents. The cost of road repairs curves upward over time, suggesting that $1 spent on early preventative maintenance saves between $4 and $10 in rehabilitation, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution last year.

The report recommends that states prioritize repairs over new roads. The authors highlight a few current examples, such as Wyoming, which spent 83 percent of its transportation funding on repairs between 2009 and 2011. In 2013 the state enacted an increase to its gas tax that would pay for preservation of existing roads, not expansion.

The report makes no mention of the 2009 economic stimulus package, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which funneled tens of billions in one-time funds to states for transportation infrastructure. But states and the federal government haven’t figured out a long-term strategy to pay for their roads -- new or old. A federal tax on fuel hasn’t been raised in two decades even as the cost of asphalt, steel and heavy machinery -- core components of road building -- have climbed in cost. Meanwhile Americans are driving less and their vehicles are using less gasoline, both of which have hurt the federal Highway Trust Fund, which receives 85 percent of its funding from the fuel tax. In the past seven years, spending has exceeded the trust fund's revenues by $49 billion, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in February.

Without new dedicated sources of revenue, the trust fund would go broke in 2015, the CBO predicted. As Governing has previously reported, Congress could institute a fee for miles traveled per vehicle or tie energy production to transportation funding. The last transportation bill avoided making tough political decisions about long-term funding solutions by using one-time accounting moves, such as transfers from the general fund.

President Barack Obama has called for "fix-it-first" funding that would prioritize repairs. So far his proposal -- mentioned in last year's State of the Union and his past two budgets -- has faced stiff resistance in Congress. For 2015, Obama is asking Congress to dedicate $4.9 billion to restoration, reconstruction and safety improvements of existing highways. 

The report's timing coincides with Congress' review of its surface transportation reauthorization bill, which set aside about $105 billion in 2013 and 2014. In January, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, asked Congress to renew and expand federal funding for surface transportation. He noted that cities and counties have more than doubled the amount they spend on highways since 1998, but federal support was still critical. “We could never raise enough revenues to offset loss of federal resource commitments,” he said at a committee hearing.

At the same hearing, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, chairwoman of the National Governors Association, requested that the next bill include a longer timeframe. She said short-term extensions create uncertainty for state and local governments and hinder their ability to plan transportation projects. 

State DOT Road Expenditures

Totals represent average annual expenditures from 2009 through 2011. Dollar figures listed in millions.

State Road Expansion Road Expansion % of Total Road Repair Road Repair % of Total
Alabama $252 45% $304 55%
Alaska $89 35% $167 65%
Arizona $620 83% $124 17%
Arkansas $235 68% $110 32%
California $940 40% $1,438 60%
Colorado $215 53% $189 47%
Connecticut $176 56% $137 44%
District of Columbia $0 0% $106 100%
Delaware $113 70% $48 30%
Florida $1,223 48% $1,312 52%
Georgia $486 46% $569 54%
Hawaii $88 59% $63 41%
Idaho $115 43% $152 57%
Illinois $543 35% $1,028 65%
Indiana $735 71% $293 29%
Iowa $238 52% $217 48%
Kansas $194 46% $225 54%
Kentucky $527 61% $343 39%
Louisiana $645 62% $388 38%
Maine $35 14% $221 86%
Maryland $257 68% $123 32%
Massachusetts $52 18% $241 82%
Michigan $95 13% $662 87%
Minnesota $377 60% $250 40%
Mississippi $603 97% $16 3%
Missouri $461 62% $283 38%
Montana $132 45% $161 55%
N. Hampshire $76 37% $130 63%
Nebraska $20 9% $196 91%
Nevada $392 83% $79 17%
New Jersey $266 20% $1,095 80%
New Mexico $53 23% $172 77%
New York $297 23% $975 77%
North Carolina $1,155 83% $233 17%
North Dakota $14 6% $240 94%
Ohio $404 39% $628 61%
Oklahoma $500 64% $279 36%
Oregon $94 37% $159 63%
Pennsylvania $1,421 62% $877 38%
Rhode Island $5 22% $19 78%
South Carolina $158 43% $213 57%
South Dakota $49 20% $196 80%
Tennessee $421 72% $163 28%
Texas $2,765 82% $612 18%
Utah $700 93% $50 7%
Vermont $30 23% $101 77%
Virginia $402 68% $192 32%
Washington $849 84% $166 16%
West Virginia $312 73% $113 27%
Wisconsin $544 61% $349 39%
Wyoming $46 17% $224 83%

Source: Calculations by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense