Thursday, July 16, 2009

Highway maintenance concerns

One of the things that struck me in my recent trip to China was the vigor with which the state was driving highways (with associated tunnels and viaducts) up through the mountains to access and connect some of the more remote communities in the hinterland. It is a very expensive undertaking, and yet it reminded me of the words of a history colleague who noted that it was the development of the roads and the automobile that really opened up America and liberated a large part of the rural population and brought many benefits to the country.

I mention this because there is a quietly increasing cost that is threatening that continued access and that is likely to have a negative impact in the near future. It was the subject of today’s editorial in The Kennebec Journal under the headlines “Is Maine maintaining too many roads?” The State has 8,500 miles of road and the question has been asked:
"Is 8,500 miles too much road system for us to afford and do too many of those roads go through too rural areas of Maine, and the cost of building them to standards too high or even maintaining them, and should we just decommission a percentage of the roads?"
It is a question that is not unique to Maine, many of the more rural states with low populations are faced with the rising costs of road maintenance and the increasing price of asphalt and other repair materials, not to mention the bridges and other infrastructure. In the short term there are some funds coming from the stimulus package that might help with the odd project, but that is a “one-shot” deal that cannot hope to address the size of the problem.
"These bridges and highways serve as critical links for Maine communities, and every day that we let them fall into further disrepair costs us lost lives, lost income and lost economic potential," says economist Laurie Lachance, head of the foundation.

But one could substitute the name of a number of states and still have the sentence be true. Partly, as the article notes, the increased costs come from a previous commitment to upgrade rural roads perhaps beyond the point that usage would justify, but that being the case, has the time come to start stepping backwards? For even in more urban states, the problems are merely growing with time. Consider Michigan where a State Senator notes
For one, the federal stimulus package is bringing in $847 million in additional one-time revenue designated for surface transportation purposes. Unfortunately, state-owned highways and expressways are getting the lion's share of the funding, with our county and municipal roads receiving only a fraction.

But the federal stimulus package still presents an opportunity. Remember that the state is receiving up to $7 billion in additional federal stimulus funding over a two-year period. This could free up other state-generated revenues to be used for our infrastructure needs.

The size of the problem is, however much larger, and in the smaller communities where roads must be resurfaced, budgets are getting stretched and roads are converting back to gravel. In cities however that is not an option, and projects are being scaled back as the cost of asphalt must be met. Hope, Arkansas is an example
“About two years prior to (2005), we were paying in the range of $30 per ton,” (City Manager) Cook told the Hope City Board of Directors recently.
In a recent bid opening for hot mix to be used in this year’s street program, the City agreed to pay $114.50 per ton to low bidder Charles Lindsey, of Ashdown. The only other bid at $145 per ton was submitted by Sid and Sons, of Texarkana.

Cook admitted to a certain surprise at the disparity.
“We were projecting that asphalt might bid out as high as $130 per ton,” she said.

Rural bridges are equally a part of the problem, Missouri, for example, has more than 10,000 bridges of which more than 1,000 are in need of repair. However, outside of the stimulus, the state is funding a program, known as Safe and Sound .
Safe & Sound is a multi-faceted program that will improve more than 800 of Missouri’s worst bridges in five years. Safe & Sound will prevent many of the state’s worst bridges from being closed temporarily or permanently for safety reasons.
The program is funded through a bond program that the state runs. Other states are not that fortunate.
Of the nearly 600,000 highway bridges in the country, 24.1 percent were reported deficient and/or functionally obsolete in 2006, a minor improvement from 2005 when 25.5 were deemed deficient. At the current rate of repair it will take 62 years for today's deficient bridges to be brought up to date.

With the rising prices of repair materials both roads and bridges will need levels of funding support that is not likely to be available. Of course this is not just a problem in the Unites States, but countries around the world will continue to address the problem, and many will not have the resources of China.

So conditions, in countries such as those in Gambia, will continue to be so bad as to inhibit pregnant women from visiting health centers (for example). It is not likely that rural conditions will get that bad in America that communities become cut off in this fashion, yet the marriage of cars and highways require that both be maintained, and one is not that useful without the other. And in the end both, at the moment, depend on the availability of oil, at a reasonable price, a condition that is decreasing, again, in probability.

And lest you wonder at the pause in posts of the last few days, Owen William came into our lives, and is our first grandchild. We thus had other things on our minds.


  1. Congratulations on a first grandchild! All that potential waiting to be nurtured is a great reason to divert your attention.

    Winter salt takes its toll on bridges and roads throughout much of North America, attacking the steel and concrete alike. Bridges and overpassess are reaching end-of-life conditions at a rate that seems to overwhelm agencies' abilities to keep up.

    Residents tend to want infrastructure like roads but not to pay for the upkeep.

  2. Thanks, we're trying to be typical grandparents.

    Road and bridge decay is not just an American problem. The Forth road bridge, outside Edinburgh in Scotland is about 50 years old and must be replaced because of corrosion of the cables. (Although in that case it is due to the sea air, rather than salt from treatment of the roadbed).