Friday, February 11, 2011

Shovel-Ready Potholes and Other Good Investments

ATTENTION, DEMOCRATS.  Want to know where to put all those borrowed discretionary dollars you are so eager to spend on the high-speed rail will-o-the-wisp?  This article is one hint.

Want to put people to work?  Want "shovel ready" projects that will reduce the unemployment situation in all the states?  Yes, it's infrastructure all right.  Potholes, for starters.

The US has been profoundly negligent about its existing infrastructure.  Bridges collapse and we wring our hands, but actually do nothing about it.  Our highways are in deplorable condition. But, so are our water transport systems.  And our power grid. And our dams, levees, and waterways. Yes, and our existing railroad system and our urban public mass transit systems.  In short, the nation's infrastructure is showing the ravages of time and indifference.  No, it's not just the Recession, but that surely helped.  We've been overlooking the obvious for a long time.

Why?  Because putting tax dollars into fixing what's broken is not sexy.  What's sexy is the shiny new metal objects that go fast.  Those cost tons of money and will take decades to start running, but they make great photo ops for politicians and they create the impression that we know what we are doing about the future.  Ribbon cutting ceremonies don't happen when you make old bridges earthquake proof, so politicians don't care about them.  

Don't be fooled by all that  "We are building infrastructure for the future" garbage.  High-speed rail is pork-barrel politics at its worst.  We've seen it in action in Jim Costa's district in California.  This article should answer the question about what we should invest in if it isn't high-speed rail.  

Remember, the ARRA funds don't kick in until late 2012 or the following year at the earliest.  What kind of an unemployment remediation program is that?  Wait two years before you can get a job?

The analogy that comes to mind is the house with a leaking roof and dry-rot in the basement, and the mortgage can't be paid any longer.  What to do?  Why, borrow more money to buy a Ferrari, of course!!!


Welcome to the Pothole Nation
Citizens fill in as cities and states lack funds for roadwork

Memphis Mark Weber/Zuma Press
By William Selway

TRANSPORTATION February 10, 2011, 5:00PM EST

Steve Shaya grew tired of looking at a pothole in his street in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck. So the 45-year-old civil engineer bought about $20 worth of asphalt patch and filled the hole himself last summer. "It was not only an eyesore, it was unsafe," he says.

For many Americans, the nation's rutted roads are among the most visible unhealed wounds of the Great Recession. Repairs have become an unaffordable luxury for cash-strapped cities and states. Now pols elected in November's Republican surge are preaching fiscal restraint and vowing not to raise taxes. Gasoline tax receipts, which provide federal and state cash for roads, are down—a result of fewer miles being logged and a switch to more efficient cars. Combined with severe winter weather putting more than the usual stress on roads, it all adds up to a pothole-infested nation.

Hamtramck, a city of 20,000, has asked Michigan to let it file for bankruptcy protection. There isn't enough spare cash to repave a single street, says Mayor Karen Majewski. The blight has spawned blogs about potholes and websites such as, where motorists from around the country can download smartphone applications listing the locations of gaping holes. The website for the Tacoma Weekly, a community newspaper in Washington, reports a boost in readership for its "Pothole Pig" feature—photos of a ceramic pig positioned in some of the city's more spectacular potholes, as chosen by readers.

Humor aside, the parlous condition of roadways is likely to get worse. States face deficits of $125 billion in the next fiscal year, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They have only about $9.4 billion in federal stimulus funds remaining for roads, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. About half the organization's members expect construction spending to fall this year. Just 14 percent foresee an increase. "The outlook is very bleak," Simonson says.

This fiscal year's projected $1.5 trillion federal deficit is also part of the problem. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Feb. 3 proposed trimming nonsecurity, discretionary programs to 9 percent below 2010 levels, for a $43 billion cut over the seven months ending Sept. 30. House Republican leaders also rewrote procedural rules so budget cutters could restrain spending from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which faces insolvency next year without an influx of money.

New Jersey's transportation trust fund is forecast to run out of money for new projects this year as debt payments eat up all its revenue. New York is short of cash for needed projects, such as a replacement for the 55-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge. California, with a budget deficit of $25 billion, spends less than half of the $6 billion a year needed to keep its roads repaired, says James Earp, a state transportation commissioner who heads a construction industry trade group. "There's just no identifiable source for the money, and I don't see that there will be anytime soon," he says.
The bottom line: America's rutted roads are likely to decay further as Congress, states, and cities balk at new taxes and instead look for spending cuts.

• Portion of U.S. urban roads that are in poor condition: 24%
• Annual average cost per vehicle for repairs caused by potholes and bad pavement: $402
• At the website of the Tacoma Weekly, a "Pothole Pig" feature displays photos of a ceramic pig sitting in city potholes. It's the site's ninth-most-visited item
• EZ Street, a cold-asphalt manufacturer in Miami, sells a DIY solution for about $20: "The Pothole Patch," a 35-pound bag of premixed asphalt that "works in any temperature"

Data: The Road Information Program
With Raquel Christie. Selway is a reporter for Bloomberg News.