Poor Pavement Hits Lower-Income Americans Hard

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Damages to cars from potholes can cost more than most households have on hand for emergencies. The cost of slow traffic and accidents may be even greater.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), motorists are shelling out $6.4 billion per year in car repairs due to potholes. That’s just to take care of flat tires, bent rims, poor alignments, damaged shocks and struts, cracked catalytic converters – and the occasional deployment of an air bag, which can run $2500 or more per incident.

Those are direct costs, something that hits any motorist hard when rubber or metal meet a road crevice. But the costs of poorly maintained and therefore deficient roads and bridges have multiple indirect costs as well: road congestion and detours can add to travel time, a loss of personal time to commuting workers and added expense to businesses that ship and deliver hard goods via surface transportation.

Now, consider the financial burden that poor pavement quality and resultant damages place on the broad swath of the population that lives paycheck to paycheck. According to a survey  by Bankrate.com released in early 2016, 63 percent of Americans do not have as much as $1,000 in spare cash to cover financial setbacks. Even among households with $75,000 or more in annual earnings, only about half (54 percent) have enough money on hand to cover $1,000 or more in damages to their vehicles. A portion of them (15 percent of the total) said they could lean on family or friends for the cash, and an equal portion have access to a credit card to cover emergencies. For others, repairs for the car they need to get to work might be financed by a payday loan or car title loan – at very high interest rates.

Road conditions and relative wherewithal vary by state and region, of course. Consider the driver in Alabama, a state where 18.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and where the per capita income is $23,680 (2013 data). The state ranks as the fourth poorest in the U.S. behind New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi (Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia rank just above Alabama).

Next, note how Birmingham, Alabama roads were ranked 20th worst among major cities (500,000+ population) nationally in 2015 by TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research organization. Forty-three percent of that city’s roads are in poor condition.

Now, put Alabama’s relatively low income against what AASHTO – the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials – finds about the condition of the state’s roads and related costs. “Alabama drivers pay more than $1,200 per year due to higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and congestion-related delays [due to rough roads],” the organization announced in a 2014 press release. Those are steep costs in a state where income is limited.

The release went on to say, “increased investment in transportation improvements at the local, state and federal levels could relieve traffic congestion, improve road and bridge conditions, boost safety, and support long-term economic growth in Alabama.” It also noted that individual drivers waste fuel due to congested roads, and that non-interstate traffic fatalities are double that of the interstates; poor pavement conditions are implicated in about a third of all traffic fatalities.

Allocating sufficient amounts of money to fix the potholes and bridges seems like a bargain, all things considered.