Bad roads cost car owners billions: Report

A man walks his bike across the street in front of a large pothole at Eighth Avenue and Kalamath Street in Denver.
RJ Sangosti | The Denver Post | Getty Images
A man walks his bike across the street in front of a large pothole at Eighth Avenue and Kalamath Street in Denver.

With the nation's road repair fund running on fumes, a transportation research and lobbying group has collected data on just how much bad roads are costing American drivers in higher repair bill.

Every spring thaw brings potholes. This year, one of the harshest winters in memory is turning America's highways into a historic pothole-palooza. Now, just as state highway departments are scrambling to patch up the damage, Congress is bickering over how to replenish the federal highway trust fund that states rely on to pay for those projects.

More than a quarter of the nation's major urban roads were in bad shape as of 2013, the latest data available, according to TRIP, which published the report Thursday. The cost of repairing the resulting broken axles, blown tires and battered shock absorbers cost the average urban driver $516 a year.

In cities with populations of 500,000 or more, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, topped the list for the worst road conditions, according to the report. Among smaller cities (with 250,000 to 500,000 people) Flint, Michigan, Antioch, California, and Santa Rosa, California, have the worst road conditions, according to the report.

Those poor road conditions cost drivers in San Francisco an estimated $1,044 per year in maintenance costs, more than double the national average.

All in, TRIP estimates that the nationwide annual cost of driving on bad roads comes to about $109 billion. That's more than the combined federal, state and local spending of $91 billion a year in 2013, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The recent highway funding drought began long before last 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.

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. And the amount of large commercial truck travel in the U.S. is expected to increase by 72 percent from 2015 to 2030.

But spending levels aren't even keeping up with what's needed to maintain the existing road network, let alone expand capacity.

For nearly six decades, the federal highway trust fund has been fueled largely by a tax on a federal gasoline and diesel sales, which the Transportation Department then apportions to state highway departments and other transportation agencies.

But, largely because the tax has not been raised in more than 20 years, rising construction costs have overtaken the increase in tax receipts. Adjusted for inflation, every dollar of gasoline tax collected in 2015 buys about the equivalent of 60 cents worth of roadwork in 1993, the last year the tax was raised.

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Fuel tax receipts have also failed to keep up with the increased traffic on the nation's highways. While Americans are driving more vehicle miles again since a dip during the Great Recession, fuel consumption has declined as cars and trucks have become more fuel efficient.

That's about half of what's needed to repair and upgrade the nation's highways, according to the Federal Highway Administration

To make up the shortfall, Congress has transferred more than $53 billion from other tax revenue over the past five years, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Last week, the House passed a bill that would kick the funding can down the highway with another $8 billion until December while lawmakers try to work out a longer-term funding plan. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is pushing for a bill that keeps the highway fund solvent through next year's presidential election.

This week, Congress is expected to try once again to cobble together more money to keep road repair work going.

As in the past, the latest highway funding renewal bill has been stuck in a slow lane debate over issues that have nothing to do with potholes. Much of the haggling has involved efforts to revive the recently expired Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that helps companies finance sales of products to foreign buyers of U.S. goods and services.

Last year, Congress cobbled together a short-term patch that included a provision to let pension fund managers "smooth" out the accounting for volatile investment returns, a move that saved U.S. companies an estimated $51 billion in pension contributions, according to analysts at Moodys.

The thornier problem—one that has stalled a permanent highway funding fix for years—is a perennial roadblock over where to find the money.