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New Report Takes on ‘Perverse Incentives’ to De-Emphasize Bridge Repair

8:52 AM PDT on April 28, 2010

When Minneapolis' I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007,
lawmakers from both parties vowed
to focus
on shoring up the nation's aging infrastructure. But when
the public spotlight faded from the issue of infrastructure repair,
Congress showed little
for setting aside maintenance aid that did not hold the
promise of ribbon-cutting ceremonies or campaign donations.

pie.pngThe state of
repair for America's urban roads, according to federal maintenance
data. In rural areas, 61% are rated "good." (Chart: U.S. PIRG)

existing federal transportation formulas dole out bridge repair money
based on the size of each state's maintenance backlog. But up to half of
that repair funding can be redirected to other purposes, such as
building new roads, with the assurance of continued largess -- as long
as local bridges remain unfixed.

That little-known provision is one of many "perverse incentives"
highlighted in a report on road and bridge maintenance released today by
the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups' (PIRG) education fund.

The rules governing federal aid for interstate maintenance,
according to the U.S. PIRG, are equally skewed to ensure older roads
keep crumbling. Take the cases of New York, where 567 miles of road were
rated in less than "good" condition by the U.S. DOT (see categories in
the above pie chart), and Florida, where 13 miles were in the same aging

One might think that New York would receive more maintenance money
from Washington. But as today's report points out:

[B]ecause of New York and Florida’s similar number of
Interstate lane miles, both states received about the same amount of
Interstate Maintenance Program funding over the last five years — $182
million for New York and $193 million for Florida, annually.

Transportation policymakers tend to be inundated by reports, but
the U.S. PIRG hopes to aim its research beyond a simple call for extra
repair funding in the next long-term federal infrastructure bill.

"We're hoping the report will be a call to look hard at the actual
politics behind these
problems," U.S. PIRG senior analyst Phineas Baxandall, one of the
document's three primary co-authors, said in an interview. "This is not
simply a problem [solved by] pouring more money into the system."

Baxandall and his colleagues also attempted to tally the real-world
costs of inattention to road and bridge repair needs. Their report
notes that car maintenance bills incurred by travelerson older roads is
significantly higher in major cities: Drivers in Los Angeles, San Jose,
and San Francisco all paying more than $700 extra per year, according to
the most recent data released by the American Association of State
Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

And given that the political
climate suggests
Congress will be hard-pressed to pass a new
six-year infrastructure bill before 2011 -- depriving pro-repair
advocates of their principal vehicle for broad "fix-it-first"
reform -- the U.S. PIRG report also maps the route to progress on the
state level in the meantime.

The report's authors highlight laws on the books in Illinois, New
Jersey, and Maryland that "requir[e] state DOTs to focus on the
rehabilitation of existing facilities before building new highways."

Baxandall said he was particularly heartened by Maryland officials'
move to set up clear metrics for determining their progress on bringing
the local built environment into a state of good repair. "If it can
happen in the states," he said, "it will [happen on] the federal level."

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