Well before the snow began falling, cutbacks in city and state budgets since the Great Recession had left highway departments scrambling for funds. Despite a brief infusion of funds for "shovel-ready" projects during the Obama administration's first term, budget pressure at all levels of government has forced highway departments to defer maintenance and repair.
But heavy and repeated snowfalls have only stretched those budgets further, according to Frank Moretti, a spokesman for TRIP, a transportation research and lobbying group.
"It's not an option to not remove the snow, but that's money that comes out of their repair budgets," he said. "So there's less money to address what is going to be a worse than normal spring in terms of road damage and potholes."
The highway funding drought, though, began long before this winter's heavy storms set in. For the last two decades, highway spending has badly lagged the increased traffic that has been pounding American pavement into disrepair.
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Since 1990, overall U.S. highway traffic is up by more than a third; commercial truck traffic, which adds the most stress, is up by a half. Between now and 2030, overall traffic will expand another 25 percent and heavy truck traffic by two-thirds, according to TRIP.
But spending levels aren't even keeping up with what's needed to maintain the existing road network, let alone expand capacity. Excluding bridge repair, total spending on roads at all levels of government is running at about $37 billion a year—roughly 18 percent less than is needed just to keep roadways in their current condition, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates. Improving those conditions would cost another $70 billion a year, the DOT estimates.