If We Can't Afford to Fix Roads, Can We Afford to Build Roads?

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New highway construction in Mississippi. Photo by Matt Dellinger.

(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  When Scott Walker was running for Governor of Wisconsin last fall, he peppered the airwaves with a campaign spot that made very clear why he planned to stop the proposed Madison-to-Milwaukee high speed rail line: It was going to cost about $810 million dollars to build, he said, and “I’d rather take that money and fix Wisconsin’s crumbling roads and bridges.”

But a new report by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG) takes Governor Walker to task for cutting $48 million in local transportation assistance—much of which would be used for road and bridge repair—while proposing a 13% increase in spending on new highway capital projects. WISPIRG’s report “Building Boondoggles?” isn’t fooling anyone with the question mark in its title. The authors, Kyle Bailey and Bruce Speight, make no bones about the “troubling” nature of Walker's “new construction largess.”

In response to a $3.6 Billion state deficit, Bailey and Speight point out, the Governor has suggested cuts “in most areas of the state budget, including education, health care and state assistance for local cities, towns and counties. State funding for local road repair and transit have also been put on the chopping block. Transit in particular has been put at risk by receiving a 10% across the board cut.” At the same time, Walker's belt-tightening left room for a billion-dollar widening of Interstate 90 south of Madison, a $390 million widening of the Tri-County Freeway in Winnebago and Calumet Counties, and the $125 million construction of a four-lane road through Caledonia county between Milwaukee and Racine.

WISPIRG questions the wisdom of these specific projects, which, to be fair, were kicking around for years before Walker became Governor (but then again, so was the Madison-to-Milwaukee high-speed rail project). But more to the point, Bailey and Speight raise the question of how Governor Walker can suggest adding to the new-road budget an amount—$328 million—that could have prevented his cuts to transit and maintenance. (Walker's office respectfully declined to comment for this story.)

Expanding the system while deferring maintenance is not just a Wisconsin thing. According to another report, released today by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Smart Growth America, this is a nationwide habit. The two groups found that between 2004 and 2008, while bridges crumbled and roads deteriorated, states spent 57 percent of their highway budgets on road widening and new road construction.

Highway contractors make more money on greenfield construction, and those projects are undeniably more glamorous for state and local leaders (You don't cut ribbons on fixed potholes). But many of the governors building new roads are the same governors who are canceling rail projects. Walker is not the only newly-elected Republican Governor who makes a distinction here. Rick Scott’s February letter (PDF) to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood canceling the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed project listed a half dozen highway capacity projects on which Scott thought the billions would be better spent. And Ohio Governor John Kasich, who returned $400 million in federal grants for the Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton rail line, recently signed a $6.8 Billion transportation bill that pumps an impressive $1.6 Billion into highway maintenance but nearly twice that—$3 billion—into highway construction.

In their report, WISPIRG takes many of the arguments these conservative governors have used against new passenger rail and applies them to Wisconsin's new roads. In either case, there is a danger of cost over-runs, the stated economic benefits are largely speculative, and the expense of maintenance and operation is endless. (If you’re going to argue that roads pay for themselves while trains do not, WISPIRG has another paper for you to peruse.)

The GOP is not monolithic, of course, and not every feels that runaway government spending travels only by rail. House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica wants to “do more with less” and "live within our means." He's prepaired to curtail federal highway funding, even while championing the thwarted high-speed rail project in his home state of Florida. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, however you may feel about his cancellation of the ARC tunnel, went on to propose a rather balanced state transportation capital program: half of the $2.3 Billion allotted for fiscal year 2012 went to NJ Transit. Texas’s Rick Perry, though he hasn’t been the best friend to his state’s high-speed rail ambitions, did at one time propose a jaw-droppingly multi-modal TransTexas Corridor that was too much even for Texans.

And then there’s Mitch Daniels, the Governor of Indiana, who is pushing forward to build a new, $3-billion stretch of Interstate 69 over the objections of the city of Bloomington. Daniels has been prickly about high speed rail, but hasn't entirely ruled it out. And while his General Assembly wants to gouge what little support the state provides to public transportation, Daniels left transit alone in his own budget proposal. "I’m an enthusiast about mass transit in the right place," he told me months ago in an interview. "What is the right place? Well, it will always involve a subsidy. But where there’s enough population density and ridership, that subsidy is clearly justified by the societal and environmental benefits."

Clever readers might note that the last three gentlemen mentioned have been held up as Presidential candidate material. In this economy, with these gas prices, Governors with one eye on the White House are probably better off making concessions to transportation "options." None of the three would be caught dead raising taxes to build infrastructure, but interestingly, they all share another transportation notion that's more or less modal-blind: a strong belief in privatization.


Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.