Report shows Iowa failing to keep up with road maintenance

Like other states, Iowa is digging a fiscal hole by not spending enough to repair roads, according to a report Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense released this month. The non-profit Smart Growth America is “the only national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for and leading coalitions to bring smart growth practices to more communities nationwide.” Taxpayers for Common Sense is “a non-partisan budget watchdog” seeking “to achieve a government that spends taxpayer dollars responsibly and operates within its means.”

The “Repair Priorites” report notes that less than half of Iowa’s roads are in good condition, yet the state continues to spend disproportionately on new road construction rather than repair. Table 1 on pages 10 and 11 of this pdf file shows that Iowa has about 22,999 “state-owned lane-miles of major roads,” of which just 10,558 (46 percent) are in good condition. Iowa would need to spend about $552 million per year to repair and preserve state roads in good condition, but that figure exceeds the total Iowa Department of Transportation budget for capital investments. Between 2004 and 2008, Iowa was spending about $172 million per year on repair and preservation for state-maintained roads. That’s roughly 32 percent of the capital investment budget. Meanwhile, Iowa added 363 state-owned lane miles between 2004 and 2008, spending more than $190 million annually on road expansion (see table A4 on pages 29 and 30).

As time passes and roads deteriorate from “good” to “fair” or “poor” condition, repairs become far more expensive. Figure 3 on page 12 of the report shows that maintaining a road “in good condition over time costs less than half the cost of making major repairs after letting the same road deteriorate to poor condition.”

Excerpts from the “Repair Priorities” executive summary and Iowa fact sheet are after the jump.

Governor Terry Branstad has suggested that Iowa needs to increase the gas tax to pay for the long-term needs of the state’s road system. To protect taxpayers’ long-term interests, the governor and officials like Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino should support investing more on road maintenance to reduce future costs.

Underscoring Iowa’s failure to maintain its vital infrastructure, a report Transportation for America released in March indicated that Iowa is the third-worst state for structurally deficient bridges. Earlier this year, Smart Growth America’s report on “smart transportation” policies for Iowa (pdf) recommended that state policy-makers: allocate more funds to maintain and repair roads and bridges; invest more in public transportation; assign some transportation money to grants that would reward “innovative least cost solutions”; and revisit the spending priorities in the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Long Range Transportation Plan.

Excerpt from Smart Growth America fact sheet:

Repair Priorities: Iowa

Iowa’s road conditions

As of 2008, a full 53% of Iowa’s state-owned major roads had fallen out of good condition, meaning they will now be increasingly expensive to repair and maintain. Only 46% of Iowa’s roads were in good condition, the state in which repairs are least expensive. The condition of 1% of Iowa’s roads was not reported.

Iowa’s highway spending priorities

Between 2004 and 2008, Iowa spent 36% of its highway capital expenditures on road expansion – $190 million each year on average – and only 32% on repair and maintenance of existing roads – $172 million. That 36% of spending went to expand Iowa’s road network by 363 lane-miles.

Iowa would need to spend $552 million annually for the next twenty years to get the current backlog of poor-condition major roads into a state of good repair and maintain all state-owned roads in good condition. Shifting more funds toward repair would go a long way toward addressing the state’s maintenance needs.

Iowa’s road condition goals

Iowa uses the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) and the Sufficiency Rating to measure road conditions. The state aims to maintain the entire state-owned network at an average rating of 62.5 (good condition) on the 0 to 100 PCI scale and at least 75% of the state-owned highway system in “fair” or better sufficiency rating according to the most recent publicly available information.

Excerpt from the executive summary of “Repair Priorities”:

Neglecting repair and preservation costs taxpayers billions of dollars in preventable expenses. A few cracks and potholes might not seem like the makings of an impending budget crisis, but putting off repairs today means spending much more in the future. Repair costs rise exponentially when roads are not routinely maintained. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), every $1 spent to keep a road in good condition avoids $6-14 needed later to rebuild the same road once it has deteriorated significantly.9 Underfunding repair and delaying these projects is inefficient and drives up future financial liabilities. Too much focus on expansion and too little on repair also means that with every dollar spent on new construction, states add to a system they are already failing to adequately maintain. […]

Federal leaders also have a vested interest in seeing transportation funds spent more efficiently. Allowing states to under-invest in repair and preservation greatly reduces the value of past and future federal road investments. In addition, roads in poor condition can negatively impact interstate trade and travel, the effect of which can be felt across large regions and across state lines. Federal transportation policy strongly influences state transportation decisions, and current federal policies may be contributing to the lack of progress in the states. For this reason, reform is essential at both the state and federal levels. Prioritizing repair and preservation will improve road conditions while protecting taxpayers from increased future liabilities.

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