When New Asphalt Gets Old

Paying for a new road or bridge is one thing. The hard part is providing for maintaining infrastructure over its lifecycle.
by | September 13, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

Last month, the Illinois Tollway Board approved an 87.5 percent toll increase to fund a $12 billion, 15-year construction and maintenance plan for the 286-mile Chicago-area highway system. "The money is going to allow us to build a 21st-century system that's safe, that reduces congestion, that we hope reduces pollution," said board Chair Paula Wolff, "and it's going to be able to allow commercial traffic to flow through the region in a way that keeps us globally competitive."

About $4 billion will go toward expansion. Another $8 billion will be used to maintain and improve existing routes, with a goal of keeping the network in a state of good repair through 2026. By prioritizing maintenance, the Tollway board made the right decision. But history teaches us that the most important question will be whether the $4 billion for expansion includes enough money to maintain the roadways it will be used to build.

Over the life of a typical transportation asset, operations and maintenance are several times more expensive than initial construction costs. But public-capital budgets are almost always based solely on building costs. Once maintenance is underfunded on the capital side, the burden shifts to the operating budgets of agencies that usually have neither the money nor an incentive to fund it.

Sadly, road and bridge maintenance generally makes headlines only when there is a catastrophic failure, such as the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed 13 people. Just a day before that tragedy, a report was published that used the Longfellow Bridge, which connects Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts, as a case study for the more common dangers of neglecting maintenance.

The Longfellow, which supports both vehicular and subway traffic, was in tatters and would require repairs costing at least $200 million. The study found that investing just 1 percent of construction costs in maintenance each year would have saved more than $80 million over the bridge's 100-year history.

The best way to solve the problem is for governments to calculate the lifecycle cost of an asset and appropriate the funds based on that amount, not just construction costs. In addition to saving money, regular, sustained maintenance increases performance, extends life and maximizes the safety of public infrastructure.

Some states have taken steps to address the maintenance problem. In Utah, new capital projects can't be funded until at least 1.1 percent of the replacement cost of existing assets has been appropriated for capital improvements. Missouri puts 1 percent of its annual general-fund revenue into a facilities maintenance reserve fund.

Cutting ribbons on new transportation infrastructure often pays immediate benefits for public officials. The savings from properly funding maintenance, on the other hand, are longer in coming and often accrue to those officials' successors. Whether Tollway board members are paying that gift forward to their successors remains to be seen.