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NASA or Potholes?

By January 20, 2016No Comments

It isn’t necessary to choose between space exploration and fixing the roads, bridges and tunnels. For now, the bumps in the road cost drivers the most.

Donald Trump, the 2016 presidential campaign hopeful, has drawn a line in the asphalt on where he thinks America should be investing: That would be fixing potholes in the streets, not sending rockets into space.

The real estate mogul made these comments in 2015 to a collection of voters in New Hampshire. “In the old days, [NASA] was great,” he said. “Right now, we have bigger problems, you understand that. We have to fix our potholes. We don’t exactly have a lot of money.”

The federal budget currently allocates about $18 billion to the space agency program. The highway bill approved by a bipartisan vote in late 2015 – the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, also referred as “FAST,” for “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act” – provides $305 billion for highway, transit and railway programs over five years. Breaking that down into money for highways, it’s $233 billion, or $46 billion per year. Within that, the National Highway Performance Program (NHHP) provides approximately $24.2 billion for such things as reconstruction, resurfacing, restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of National Highway System roads, bridges and tunnels, in addition to bicycle transportation and pedestrian walkways.

Federal, state, county and city roads aren’t all covered by these expenditures – local and state gas taxes as well as other public funds are needed for some of those potholes.

While we’re doing the math on the costs of deteriorating pavement, insurance companies provide us with some numbers to chew on. Farmers Insurance says there are about a half-million insurance claims for pothole damage every year. But that’s very likely a significant undercount, given how most people have a $1,000 or more deductible on their cars for collision claims within a comprehensive insurance policy. Costs for blown tires, cracked rims and wheel alignments might go upwards of $500, not worth reporting because it counts as a single-driver accident on drivers’ records.

With serious damage from potholes – injuries and even deaths sometimes occur – claims on a policy in turn can raise insurance premiums or cancel a policy altogether if more than one at-fault accident is reported within a limited timeframe (up to three years).

Talk of space exploration and its potential far-off benefits are fair fodder for presidential campaign debates. The vote to authorize transportation spending was refreshingly bipartisan, however. Perhaps this is because potholes are real and make no distinctions between political allegiances – while drivers of all stripes pay for them one blown tire at a time.

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