Op-Ed: Road Funding Must Include Construction and Maintenance Costs

By: Secretary Brian Kelly

Once the concrete dries on a new transportation project, the hard work begins: maintaining and preserving the infrastructure for decades of use by commuters, freight and businesses. Unfortunately, those maintenance costs are not typically included in the financing when construction work begins. As a result, there’s a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog on California’s streets and roads.

For years, Caltrans has built the projects that local communities want and those projects are typically new construction. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies may be more exciting than routine maintenance, but its unwise to build something new without a commitment to maintain it.

Fifteen years after building a new road, the pavement will have deteriorated 40 percent and begin to worsen exponentially in the next several years. That’s why every $1 spent now to keep a road in good condition avoids having to spend $6 to $14 later to rebuild the same road. In short, prioritizing maintenance saves hundreds of millions of dollars in the long term.

But new money alone will not fix California’s worsening transportation infrastructure: We must get smarter about where the money is spent. States, on average, spend about 55 percent of their transportation money on new construction, which creates an ever-growing backlog of infrastructure that lacks sufficient funding for maintenance. Building new infrastructure without funding for the upkeep is unsustainable.

That’s why the State Transportation Agency recommends a “fix it first” approach to transportation infrastructure that prioritizes the preservation of our existing highway system. California does better than the national average when it comes to prioritizing maintenance and rehabilitation of the existing system. Of the $5.5 billion in state funds spent on highways last year, 76 percent went to maintenance and rehabilitation, and 24 percent to new capacity.

Still, the outstanding maintenance backlog includes major reconstruction projects that are laborious and much more expensive than preventive maintenance. Most of California’s 50,000 highway lane miles were built more than a half a century ago. Through a one-time cash infusion under Proposition 1B, about 59 percent of California’s pavement is in excellent condition and 25 percent requires routine maintenance to stay in good condition, while the remaining 16 percent is in poor condition. Reaching our goal of 90 percent healthy pavement will not only require substantial commitments to preventive maintenance on about 12,000 miles of existing pavement, but also reconstruction of nearly 3,000 miles of pavement that suffers major structural distress.

For decades now, Caltrans has lacked a comprehensive inventory of its existing assets and the precise conditions of state infrastructure. Contractors bid on maintenance projects without adequate information about existing road condition, sometimes tearing up pavement to figure out how much work needs to be done deep below the surface. This poor past practice is changing. Caltrans is designing a comprehensive asset management plan that includes a detailed infrastructure inventory. State engineers are also embracing a first-in-the-nation program that involves literally scanning every mile of state highway with radar to measure the rates of deterioration and make better decisions about where and how to make repairs.

It’s time to include the total cost of building new transportation infrastructure: the price of construction and the cost of long-term maintenance that will stretch out for decades. Working with our local, state and federal transportation partners, it’s time to prioritize these life-cycle infrastructure costs and commit revenue to new construction with a funding plan in place to maintain it.

Brian Kelly is the Secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees state transportation-related departments including the Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and high-speed rail.

This Op-Ed was published by the San Francisco Chronicle. You can find it on their website here.

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