Potholes Were – And Still Are – Shovel Ready

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President Obama wants to blame Republicans, but a major opportunity to repair infrastructure was missed in 2009

President Obama threw the lowly pothole into the lofty debates on the future of our country on April 18 when he suggested that Republican-led budget cuts will further the crumbling of infrastructure, leading to “potholes everywhere.”

Really? Mr. President, the potholes are hardly the sole fault of the Republicans. With all due respect, this is a problem that has been building for a long time. Potholes are a product of two things: physics and neglect. Physics include time, moisture, temperature fluctuations and road use. Neglect is when cities, states and the federal government all fail to properly maintain the roads; without money to fix cracks and small potholes, the physical breakdown of pavement is accelerated and becomes exponentially more expensive, a pure example of where a “stitch in time saves nine.” Politicians absolutely play a role, but there’s no reason to pin this on either party at any one level of government.

You had your chance in the first few months of your presidency, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate in addition to the White House. But the way in which money was divvied up in the federal stimulus program – The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009– relative to infrastructure repair and rebuilding is a clear and unfortunate illustration of a broken system.

It was in the Democrats’ hands to fix those potholes, and indeed some were. But not nearly enough. Far from it, in fact. As a result, jobs were lost.

There is no better an example of a “shovel ready” project than a pothole. It’s a relatively low-tech venture that does not require a lot of planning. The hole is cleaned of loose debris and an appropriate type of asphalt is used to fill the hole (some asphalt lasts longer than others, the affordability of which is subject to funding). Importantly, it is labor-intensive work. Crews on pothole-repair projects can be public employees, but are often contractors called in during heavy pothole repair seasons, such as the spring in northern states. With historically low employment levels in the construction sector, many such contractors can be found at a relatively low cost.

In other words, this is a low-cost period for pothole and other infrastructure repair. And to engage in such projects would stimulate jobs in an industry that is otherwise moribund.

Bad roads and unemployment

Let’s consider where the roads are bad and how it may have favorably affected jobs had more funds been dedicated to pavement preservation.

The U.S. Department of Transportation ranks road quality in terms of pavement quality, fatalities, bridge conditions and congestion levels, and recently issued their list of the ten worst states. We’ve correlated those states – where potholes and other pavement repair is sorely needed – with the levels of unemployment (by percent and rank among states), in the following:

Worst ten states for road quality* and unemployment levels

10. Alabama                            – Ranks 33rd in unemployment, 9.2%

9. Kentucky                            – Ranks 45th, 10.2%

8. Pennsylvania                       – Ranks 19th, 7.8%

7. New Jersey                          – Ranks 36th, 9.3%

6. Hawaii                                 – Ranks 9th, 6.3%

5. Arkansas                             – Ranks 19th, 7.8%

4. West Virginia                      – Ranks 30th, 9.1%

3. Oklahoma                            – Ranks 6th, 6.1%

2. North Carolina                    – Ranks 40th 9.7%

1. Louisiana  (#1 worst roads)            – Ranks 23rd, 8.1%

*Source: U.S. Department of transportation

And yet the states where the worst roads exist and where the rates of unemployment are the highest did not necessarily get proportionate amounts of money for fixing those roads. North Carolina, with the second worst roads in the nation, only received $91 per capita, in Pennsylvania and Kentucky they spent about $110 per capita and in Louisiana it was $112 (source: U.S. Department of Transportation). In contrast, the five states with the best-ranked road quality received the amounts indicated here:

2009 Stimulus bill spending on highways and public transit per capita in the states with the best-ranked roads

5. Delaware  $159.75              – Unemployment rank 26th, 8.4% unemployed

4. Indiana   $116.40                            – 27th, 8.5%

3. Kansas  $135.09                  – 12th, 6.8%

2. North Dakota  $282.35       – Ranks lowest in unemployment, 3.6%

1. New Mexico $141.30         – 23rd, 8.1%

In other words, road quality roughly corresponds with stimulus dollars allocated for highway repair in those states. And in certain states (North Dakota and Kansas), unemployment rates are lower than most others. To be sure, there are many other variables, but the correlations are interesting and perhaps instructive.

Of course, we understand that you did not dictate how those dollars were to be allocated. It was a lollapalooza of earmarking, largely led by the party in charge in the Congress. But as President, you could have led a bit more forcefully on how those dollars were divided up. It could have been driven more distinctly with a focus on jobs.

The stimulus package spread the wealth around, with good intentions. But the bill was loaded up with pork – and not always the kind of pork that creates jobs. Here are some things that were funded by the stimulus package:

  • $30 million to build the spring training facilities for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies baseball teams.
  • $11 million to build a bridge that connects Microsoft’s two campuses in Redmond, Washington.
  • $6 million for snow-making equipment in Duluth, Minnesota.
  • $1 million to build a garage for 250 bicycles in Portland, Oregon (that’s $4,000 per bicycle, a project that is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere).
  • $2.3 million for research on invasive insects in Connecticut.
  • $462,000 to purchase 22 concrete toilets for the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

Some of these projects created jobs, particularly in construction, but one imagines the number of people studying the bugs in Connecticut to be relatively small. And several of these and other projects were not quite as “shovel-ready” as originally claimed.

High-speed passenger rail projects – for transportation corridors that may or may not win over riders – were earmarked in the stimulus package to receive $8 billion. But Florida Governor Rick Scott has already turned away $2.4 billion that was destined for that state, while years will pass before others in California, the upper Midwest and the Northeast are built (all depend on matching funds from states where they are built, a far stretch in the current economy). Nary a shovel is turned on any such projects yet.

We know of about a trillion potholes that are, unquestionably, shovel-ready. Anyone reading this article likely knows some of the readiest – and wants them shoveled in already.

Potholes broadly affect the economy

Of course, the national debt requires that difficult choices be made. With a $14 trillion national debt and about a trillion potholes from coast to coast, we feel a strained tug in opposite directions. Your perspective might even become more clear when you suffer $400 in damages to your car after hitting one such chuckhole. But just who do you curse when that happens?

Potholes and money are joined at the hip at city and county, state and the federal government levels. They cost motorists piles of money and are a threat to public safety.

So for that reason, Pothole.info agrees that our namesake and focus, potholes, should be part of this huge, monumental conversation.  Potholes may appear to be simple sections of missing pavement, but they are the pox on the $1.65 trillion investment the U.S. has made in roads since the 1950s.

Pavement is pretty essential to everyday life. It is the way we get to work, the roads on which our children go to school, how our ambulances carry the sick and injured to hospitals and how merchandise is transported to factories, stores and homes. Streets, avenues, roads and highways all play a critical, essential role in how business operates and how we live our lives. Long before there was an Information Superhighway, there were superhighways. Now that we are a full two decades into the Internet-as-we-know-it era, it still takes a FedEx, UPS or U.S. Postal truck to deliver whatever we’ve ordered on eBay or Amazon.

Again, we have to ask: Why is this being positioned as the fault of fiscally conservative Republicans? The pothole problem is not new, and neither political party has effectively championed it. Over time, over several administrations at all levels of government under the Democrats and Republicans, things have gotten progressively worse. The natural, inevitable, completely predictable deterioration of pavement has occurred in absence of proper maintenance. Smaller problems of yesterday become bigger and more expensive problems today – only to get worse tomorrow. The laws of pavement physics are never compromised.

Potholes everywhere and what they cost

Potholes get worse every day because the roads are getting old. Most of our major roads and highways were built 40 or more years ago.

Potholes are commonly thought to be a function of freeze-thaw cycles, but the problem is actually broader than that. Some of the worst roads in America are in temperate and semi-tropical areas that almost never freeze: Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Diego are lousy with potholes. Winter conditions make the roads in and around Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Tulsa pretty treacherous – most evident in spring, of course. But moisture is at the core of most road deterioration, causing damage to highways in such places as Seattle, Portland (Oregon) and throughout the Mid-Atlantic Seaboard (Maryland, North Carolina and New Jersey).

In other words, potholes are in red states and potholes are in blue states. Potholes can make a mess of a Mercedes Benz almost as quickly as it might a Chevy Aveo. Just about anyone who even occasionally leaves home is directly affected by potholes. Even people who opt to ride bicycles dislike potholes – one bad bump can seriously injure or kill a biker.

We are, in essence, driving on ticking pothole bombs. The interstate highway system, like much of the road infrastructure under the management of state departments of transportation, was built in the post-War period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In some places, those roads have performed well beyond expectation. Smart maintenance programs have stopped road deterioration in its tracks through crack sealing programs and well-timed repair of potholes when they are small with permanent (higher quality) asphalt mix.

According to Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudel, a dollar spent on pavement preservation will circumvent the need to spend seven dollars on rebuilding a few years later. “It’s another drag on the economy,” Steudel told Pavement Preservation Journal, because bad roads place financial burdens on people, businesses, healthcare systems and insurance companies.

We know that we should be spending $166 billion per year for road and highway maintenance (source: American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AASHTO). But in a typical year, we only spend $78 billion. The 2009 stimulus package raised that to $114 billion (for just two years, 2009 and 2010), so the math on that suggests some pretty daunting economics. Either we’ll have to come up with the “missing” $52-$88 billion from here forward – or we will have to drive on roads that look like a war zone.

Can we share the responsibility – and get it fixed?

Getting back to the federal budget debate, we all know that the nature of politics is that each side will posture to an extreme (e.g., Democrats won’t consider touching entitlement programs while Republicans float the idea of a complete overhaul of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security). We get it – you spend weeks publicly arguing your far left or far right position, appealing to your base, typically settling for a compromise somewhere in the middle.

But there are times where the middle ain’t such a great place. Take it from a pothole perspective: the center of the road is no place for a car to drive – which is what often happens when cars swerve to avoid potholes.

Blame for the increasing degree of pavement deterioration is not a Democratic issue nor a Republican issue nor even an Independent issue. We all share and depend on the roads that were built in the time of our grandparents: it’s a basic part of life and the economy. And if we want to keep driving safely and economically, we have to give those roads proper maintenance.

Without passable roads, all those other things – spring training stadiums, snowy Duluth, concrete toilets and bicycling – don’t really amount to very much. Trust us: when the ride is too bumpy, when cars suffer expensive damage and the trip takes too long, people just stay home.

And that’s no way to stimulate an economy.