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Fix it First

June 08, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

No thriving business would spend lavishly on new facilities while letting its productive existing ones fall into disrepair. But that's exactly what Minnesota and most other states in the union are doing when it comes to care and maintenance of highways.

A new report shows that our state is spending nearly half of its highway capital on expanding roads and less than the national average on keeping them in good shape. And the national average is pretty discouraging, too. According to the report by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, only four states and the District of Columbia are doing enough to keep good roads good and make bad roads better. Minnesota isn't among them.

The state Department of Transportation has quibbled with some of the study's Minnesota-specific findings, but its own projections show a near-tripling of highway miles in poor condition over the next two decades.

Despite frequent calls for government to operate more like a business, the hard fact is that it often doesn't, especially when it comes to road building, repairs and maintenance. The reasons are easy to grasp. Cutting the ribbon on a new highway boosts a government leader's public image. Shutting down lanes for needed repairs leaves drivers snarling.

That kind of anger could get even worse if a threatened state government shutdown next month halts road maintenance projects in mid-repaving. And the cost of those projects—$900 million this year for both new construction and maintenance—would go up to pay for interim traffic and erosion control and stopping and restarting the work. So will individuals' driving costs if the "Fix it Last" philosophy persists. It's already estimated that bad pavement increases the average Twin Cities motorist's fuel, repair and maintenance costs by $700 a year. 

According to the report, titled "Repair Priorities -- Transportation spending strategies to save taxpayer dollars and improve roads," Minnesota spent about $230 million annually from 2004 to 2008 on road repairs—about $1 billion a year short of the need calculated over 20 years. The $230 million was just 21 percent of the state's total highway capital budget, compared with a national average of 27 percent spending on preservation, the report said.

The report notes that Minnesota's road repair work increased proportionally in the two subsequent years, thanks mainly to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known in supposedly conservative cirlces as "Porkulus." I thought real conservatives valued preservation of public assets.

In the wake of the housing bust and Great Recession that hollowed out distant exurban developments and left nearly a quarter of construction workers unemployed, fixing roads instead of building new ones makes even greater sense. According to the report, highway repairs and maintenance create 16 percent more jobs than new road construction.

What's more, "In the recent stimulus, investments in public transportation created almost twice the jobs that highways did and are now helping others get to their jobs, as well as attracting private sector investment, creating still more jobs," the report says. This finding apparently was lost on Minnesota's conservative legislative majorities, which approved state funding cuts of 84 percent to Metro Transit and 23 percent to Greater Minnesota transit while holding less efficient suburban opt-out systems harmless. Wisely, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed that proposal.

The nation's 47,000-mile Interstate highway system is the result of a massive, 60-year public works project that, as author Earl Swift calculates in his new book "The Big Roads," dwarfs "Egypt's pyramids, the Panama Canal and China's Great Wall" combined. The Panama Canal is now being rebuilt and enlarged. The pyramids and Great Wall, obsolete in the 21st century, are crumbling. So will our road system, which is still vital to our economy, if the priorities for scarce highway dollars don't change.

A "Fix it First" policy fits our practical Upper Midwest culture and makes especially good sense in Minnesota's extreme climate, where record heat this week buckled pavement in many locations while crews were still repairing the pothole devastation of the past winter.

So the question needs to be asked: How could subtropical, low-tax Florida, in the midst of huge growth in the 2004-08 period, manage to spend more than was needed on road preservation, according to the Smart Growth America report, while Minnesota fell hundreds of millions of dollars short?

Michigan, New Jersey, New York and D.C.—among conservative dogma's prime examples of bad governance—were the only other exceptions to the national race to the bottom in pavement quality. Minnesota needs to get off its dead-end direction and join the smart states that have resolved to Fix it First.

Photo credit: Minnesota Department of Transportation

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  • Tim says:

    June 14, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Apparently the State of Minnesota has hundreds of millions of dollars waiting to be spent on a four lane mega-bridge which will primarily benefit Wisconsin commuters. Even some Madison legislators see the wastefulness of this proposal. Why don’t we spend a third of the money on a smaller bridge that will solve Stillwater’s Wisconsin rush hour problem and spend the rest of the money fixing Minnesota roads and bridges?