Who Will Fix Rural Roads and Bridges? NMA E-Newsletter #413

The chronic underinvestment in infrastructure dates back to the Reagan Administration. Since the 1980’s, public spending on water and transportation infrastructure fell from around one percent to 0.6 percent of the annual U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Instead of renewing or building additional infrastructure to keep up with population and current technology, government officials have merely chosen to patch up infrastructure with Band-Aids instead when much more has been needed.

Rural roads and bridges have suffered the most. Those in disrepair or even closed due to structural problems impacts farmers getting their goods to market, residents, tourists, commuters, and the delivery of services.

The Congressional Budget Office says that even though public infrastructure spending has actually increased since 2003, the costs of asphalt, concrete and cement has risen dramatically. According to a new report by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, public expenditures on transportation relative to cost fell by nine percent between 2003 and 2014. The report also stated that transportation agencies in at least 27 states have unpaved roads which equates to about 1.6 million miles or 39 percent of all the roads in the U.S.

Rural and small town bridges are especially affected. In September 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that stated, “Inadequate funding is hampering state departments of transportation (DOT) and local agencies as they try to maintain or improve the condition of bridges for which they’re responsible.” The report said that the average age of a U.S. highway bridge is 45 years old. Most bridges were built with a 50 year life span. The GAO report added, “The challenge of aging bridges is intertwined with the challenge of inadequate funds.”

According to the report, the Massachusetts DOT funds only the most urgent priorities and does not have the luxury of planning far into the future. For example, the city of Charlemont, population 1200, is a community with 46 bridges. Three of the bridges span at least 20 feet in length which qualifies them as the only ones eligible for federal aid. The city doesn’t have the several million dollars needed to repair the other bridges which will become less safe over time.

In a report released in 2015, the Mississippi Economic Council said an investment of an additional $375 million annually is needed to address the state’s most vital road and bridge needs. According to TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation nonprofit organization, 22 percent of Mississippi’s major roads are in poor condition. In the Hattiesburg urban area (population around 46,000), 28 percent of major roads are classified as poor. Currently in the state, 183 bridges are no longer able to carry the weight of traffic and there are another 424 deficient bridges that need attention. 

Mississippi, which has one of the lowest GDPs in the country, does not have the funds to make these infrastructure investments. One of the most prosperous states in the country doesn’t either. Stanislaus County, California officials had to nearly eliminate all roadway resurfacing projects. The county sits in the Central Valley (one of the prime farming areas of California) with Modesto as the county seat. As of the 2010 census, population was around 515,000 and the county encompassed just over 1500 square miles.

Historically, the county resurfaced 75 to 100 miles of roadway per year. In the past two years, Stanislaus has resurfaced seven road miles total due to restricted funds and has reduced pothole patching by 50 percent. If the California State Legislature fails to pass a funding and reform solution this year, the county’s Public Works Department will be forced to implement a massive reduction in staff to balance its budget. This is despite the fact that Stanislaus County recently passed a small increase in sales tax to provide funds for infrastructure improvement.

The burden to fix and maintain these roadways falls to state legislatures and despite the depth and breadth of the problem, elected officials with few exceptions have not acted on this critical issue.

The big city solution of tolling roads and bridges to finance maintenance (among other things) is not applicable to rural communities. Meanwhile the infrastructure divide between urban/suburban and rural areas will continue to grow.

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