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Fix It First!

Background Information

Bumpy Roads and Rickety Bridges

In their 2009 report on America's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated our roads a "D" grade and our bridges a "C." Their rating comes as no surprise. Thirty three percent of our nation's roads are in "poor or mediocre condition" and 24 percent of our bridges are deemed "structurally obsolete."1 In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama recognized the need to repair our crumbling roads and bridges and invest in our infrastructure. He called for a future where 80 percent of Americans have access to high speed rail. Now, it's time for congress to spend transportation dollars wisely to achieve the President's vision and build America a 21st century transportation system.

Below are other stats on percentage of roads and bridges out of repair. These bumpy roads and rickety bridges create major safety problems for American families and commuters. A study conducted by the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation found that road way conditions contribute to 22,000 fatalities and cost the nation more that $217 billion annually.2

American families are paying the price for bad roads and bridges. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs - an average of $335 per motorist.3

Changing the Game: Smart Spending, Not Pork

Congress is behind in setting its transportation priorities for the next six years, and in the meantime our roads and bridges are falling apart.

On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, leaving the nation shocked and horrified. The bridge was designed in the 1960s and like most bridges took on more weight as lane dividers and other modifications were made. Renovations were overlooked and weak spots in the bridge's infrastructure gave way to the additional weight. While the collapsed Minnesota bridge was rebuilt, 141,896 bridges nationwide remain in need of repair and upgrades.4

Congress needs to embrace smart spending of transportation dollars with a new U.S. transportation policy that invests in a 21st century multi-modal transportation system. We should improve public safety and spend transportation dollars wisely by putting performance and potholes before the pork we don't need.

New Roads Are Not a Solution

Unfortunately, instead of building a 21st century transportation system that will serve the needs of our nation, politicians often scramble to waste money on unnecessary new highways and bridges that only increase congestion and costs.

Building more highways is widely believed to help reduce congestion-however, this is not true. Many studies have found that traffic increases with number of lanes and highways that are built. The Moving Cooler study examined the effects of building new highways in congested areas and found that induced travel on the new road outweighs the efficiency gains and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within a few years.5 New roads encourage new, sprawling developments, which encourage more driving. Instead of alleviating congestion elsewhere, new roads often create new points of congestion.

To determine the total greenhouse gas emissions of new highways, the full "life-cycle" of emissions must be taken into account, including mining and transportating materials for construction, maintenance, and increased vehicle travel on the new highway. Analysis shows that each new lane-mile of highway causes up to 185,600 tons of CO2e emissions over a 50 year time period.6 Repairing existing road infrastructure instead of building new roads is a wiser decision that reduces pollution, avoids additional congestion, and cuts costs.

President Obama is moving in the right direction. His speech on Labor Day 2010 signaled reprioritizing money for roads and bridges on repair and maintenance. Congress should follow by targeting funding for roads and bridges on repair and maintenace of our current infrastructure.

The 2009-10 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prioritized transportation funding to create and save jobs as well as repair and maintain existing highways and bridges. However, according to a Smart Growth America report on stimulus spending, most states opted to use the funding on new unnecessary highways instead of investing it smartly.7

Fixing What We Have

According to research conducted by the University of Utah's Metropolitan Research Center, public transportation and road and bridge repairs create more jobs than building new highways. Repair work on roads and bridges creates 16 percent more jobs than new highways, while investing in public transit creates 31 percent more jobs than building new highways. Additionally, spending money repairing existing highways creates jobs faster, spending more on wages and less on equipment and plans.8

When Sierra Club first released the Fix it First report in 2005, America's civil engineers graded our transportation infrastructure a D. In 2005, the debate over a new transportation policy for America was tainted by the "Bridge to Nowhere" and focused on wasteful spending. Six years later, our transportation infrastructure still has the same D grade. New transportation policy must focus on investing in a 21st century transportation system that will cure our addiction to oil while ensuring we repair and make our existing infrastructure safe.

  1. The Road Information Project. "Key Facts about America's Surface Transportation System and Federal Funding."
  2. Miller, Ted.R, Zaloshnja, Eduard. On a Crash Course: the Dangers and Health Costs of Deficient Roadways. April 2009.
  3. American Society of Civil Engineers. "2009 Infrasctructure report card."
  4. Better Roads Magazine's 2005 and 2009 Bridge Inventory.
  5. Cambridge Systematics, Inc. (2009). Moving Cooler: An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C.
  6. Accessed February 14, 2011.
  7. Smart Growth America Report. The States and Stimulus Spending: Are they using it to create jobs and 21st century transportation. June 2009.
  8. Arthur C. Nelson et al., The Best Stimulus for the Money: Briefing Papers on the Economics of Transportation Spending, University of Utah's Metropolitan Research Center and Smart Growth America, April 2009

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