Some states may be making the problem even worse by diverting scarce funds to build new bridges and roadways before replacing or repairing those that have outlived their useful lives, according to a spending analysis by Smart Growth America.
The range of spending choices can be seen in ways that states managed the one-time shot in the arm from the 2009 federal stimulus package that helped states pay for tens of billions of dollars of "shovel ready" infrastructure projects.
Of the $26 billion in transportation-related funds, a third went to building new roads and bridges, according to Smart Growth America's analysis. Eleven states spent more than half of their stimulus allocation on new capacity. In five of those states—Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii and Arkansas—more than half of their existing highway infrastructure needs repair.
"You can look at a state like Arkansas that spent its money on system expansion while at the same what they had was falling apart," said Millar. "Not the smartest expenditure of dollars."But economic growth and development continue to strain existing capacity and create demand expanding the network of roads and bridges that feed that growth.
In northwest Arkansas, for example, continued growth and hiring by large employers like Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and truck carrier J.B. Hunt has helped keep the jobless rate well below the national average.
"During the recession, that part of the state continued to grow and prosper, and that's where we're seeing some tremendous capacity issues on our road program," said Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Arkansas state Highway and Transportation Department.
That growth brought increased population growth and higher volumes of freight shipments. Maintaining that growth meant extending and widening Interstate 540 and replacing bridges and overpasses, some of which weren't deficient.
That kind of new construction further raises costs in two ways, said Millar. First, it creates that many more miles of highway and bridge to maintain."Adding capacity to solve a congestion problem is like buying a bigger pair of pants to solve a weight problem," said Millar. "You're not solving the problem you're accommodating the problem."
Building new roads and bridges also diverts money from relatively cheap maintenance projects, which further raises the longer term cost of repair or replacement.
"It's a significantly better investment to spend money on a bridge that's in good condition now than to have to repair it when it becomes structurally deficient," said Steve Davis, a spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of transportation and land use policy groups. "It's sort of like staying ahead of things with your car. You're better off keeping up with oil changes than waiting until your engine seizes up."
The dearth of funding to fix the problem makes the choices that much harder for transportation officials. The recent stimulus highway spending was a drop in the bucket compared to the total annual highway spending of about $160 billion a year, about a quarter of which comes from the federal government.
But because federal officials don't track how much money state and local governments devote to bridge repair and replacement, it's hard to know how well the money is being spent, according to a report last month by the Government Accountability Office.
"(The) lack of comprehensive information on state and local spending makes it impossible to determine the impact of the federal investment on bridges," the report concluded.
The scope of the problem, however, is not hard to measure. Of the more than 600,000 bridges monitored by the Transportation Department, more than a quarter were built in the 15 years following the establishment of the Interstate Highway system in 1956. Every year, roughly 10,000 of those bridges reach the end of their 50-year lifespan.
As the need for repair and replacement widens, though, available funding is getting squeezed.