August 20, 2014

Heaven Help Our Roads

As I write this post we have passed 3,500 miles on our trip. I have felt almost every one of those three thousand five hundred miles. The RV has shaken enough to loosen dozens of screws and make things rattle that I didn't even know could rattle. Why? Because too many of America's roads are falling part.

If you have plans to motor through the Midwest, hold on to your hat (and anything else that might be loose): I-70 through eastern Colorado, I-90 through southern Minnesota, I-35 in Iowa and Minnesota, I-39 in Wisconsin.....the list is endless. Have you noticed that the major offenders are part of our Interstate highway system. Certainly we encountered some terrible state and county roads, but the worst have been parts of the national system. 


Being summer, every few dozen miles or so a lane is closed while crews replace a bridge, or patch the worst holes and cracks. But, all they are doing is placing a bandage on a gaping wound. I would guess hundreds of billions of dollars and years of repairs are required to restore our broken down, decrepit highway system. 

80% of American communities are totally dependent on trucks to bring them fuel, food, and supplies. How those trucks navigate over the busted road system is a mystery to me. Obviously the extra costs in repair and upkeep for the tens of thousands of trucks that supply our daily needs is passed on to us.

In its wisdom Congress cuts the Highway Trust Fund as wasteful expenses or takes the money for other purposes. As of today, the Highway Trust Fund is out of money. If our roads and bridges are failing our daily life will be directly effected. We know how to build and maintain our highways - we just have to have the will (both political and budgetary)  to do so.


A  good example of short-sighted decision making is the tendency to take money from the HTF to pay for mass transit. Sounds good, until you realize 17 percent of total federal user fees (gas taxes which are supposed to fund the Highway Trust Fund) go to mass transit in only six cities (Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco), even though mass transit's share of the nation’s surface travel amounted to roughly 1 percent and transit users pay nothing into the HTF.

Mass transit is good, but not if it guts the fund designed to keep our Interstate system functioning. That makes no sense.

  I am spoiled: the roads, freeways, and Interstate system in the Phoenix area are in fabulous shape. I have become used to smooth, quiet, well-repaired roads. This trip has made it abundantly clear much of the rest of America isn't so lucky.

Our highways are essential in keeping our country and way of life intact. After the last six weeks driving on some of those vital links, I must report we are facing a serious problem.


33 comments:

  1. Wait til you get to the east coast! It is a sin. Ed Rendell has been pushing and pushing to repair roads and bridges, but it's always falling on deaf ears. I seriously worry about some of our bridges out here, which a many!
    Stay safe. I hope you don't have tons of expenses because of it!
    b

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    1. Our human tendency is to think short term. That is why our roads are a mess, our bridges dangerous, and our education system struggling to produce well educated and motivated citizens. Cut the budget, raid the cookies jar, or short change future generations - let someone else worry about that.

      So far the only real damage to the RV has been cosmetic, though I think a front end alignment and new brakes will be needed upon our return.

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  2. The interstate between Flagstaff and the border in Arizona is awful. The driver has to pay extra attention.

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    1. I-40 is very poor, though the worst section not far from Kingman was redone recently. Overall, though, I-40 would make my list of Interstates in desperate need of major funds.

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  3. This is one reason when we travel, even for several weeks or more we always rent a car. A monthly rate for a rental is far cheaper than destroying our personal vehicles. Now, I understand the whole RV situation is a true love and the joy and benefits of this type of travel are immense. But, when you figure in the cost of the RV, fuel economy ,wear and tear on the vehicle and the repair bill that awaits you when you get home, unless you are a truly well-heeled retiree, renting is better. I truly do understand the love of this life-style and the places you stay and the friends you make while on the road but until the roads are better maintained long distance travel via RV is a past dream. We travel the " Blue Highways" when on the road and Interstate travel is Verboten for us. The roads are a little better, the townspeople just as friendly, and making time not speeding is our joy on the road and we travel all the time and are still having a blast! I believe, too, that Interstates are" hours of boredom with seconds of terror". Be safe in your travels. Love your column and articles and are among my favorites on the Web.

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    1. What will probably prevent us from many more of these months-long journeys is the cost of gas. When we bought the RV a few years ago the costs were high but acceptable. Now, they constitute about 65% of the total cost of the trip. Putting $100 into the tank every day or so gets old real quick!

      Taking a motorhome with a car being towed behind is safer on an Interstate or major highway. But, as soon as we get to our destination we use the car to explore back roads and fascinating sights - that's where the real joy of traveling comes in.

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  4. I disagree that money diverted from highways to mass transit is short-sighted; it is part of what might save us from catastrophic climate change (that will leave much of Florida under water and much of Arizona without water). Pretending that our heavy reliance on automobiles and fossil fuels is not an issue is what is short-sighted.
    Unfortunately, Americans love to hate government and hate to spend taxes for services that government provides best, like infrastructure. It turns out that when a tax cut gives lots of people more money in their pockets, they almost never say, "Hey, let's pool our tax refunds and use them to fix the bridge before it falls down and kills a bunch of people." -Jean

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    1. I am a strong supporter of mass transit. The problem is the money is taken from the fund designed to maintain our roads. Mass transit deserves its own funding and full support.

      Phoenix added 21 miles of light rail a few years ago and demand is so high several more miles are already being built.. If available in an urban environment people will use mass transit. personally, I love to ride light rail when I can.

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  5. What in federal oversight is not a mess right now?
    Frustrating.

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  6. Thanks for the report, even if it is dismaying. So here are a cpl of thoughts. You in Phoenix don't have to deal with the freezing and thawing that play havoc with the roads up north. Plus, your roads are a lot newer to begin with. We have lots of roads in the northeast and midwest that were built 60 or 80 years ago, for cars going 40 m.p..h. Now they carry big, heavy SUVs at 70 m.p.h. And they can't build new roads largely b/c of zoning regulations, special interests and local politics.

    Still, what I don't get is that, yes, the roads, or at least some of them, are the worse for wear. Yet everywhere you go, people are working to repair the roads. So if they're doing so much work, how come the roads aren't in better shape? I'd be in favor of raising the gas tax ... but only if they use the proceeds to really fix the roads, and not to pay off political favors, make sweetheart deals, and squander the money on pet projects.

    Finally, while those six cities don't cover much of the landscape, they probably do transport 17 percent of the American population.

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    1. From the report I read all mass transit, including those six cities only move 1% of the people.

      Yes, Phoenix benefits from newer roads overall. Heat is also a damaging influence and we get enough of that, but freezing is probably worse. Many of our newer freeways have been paved with rubberized asphalt (made from old tires) which make for a very smooth and quiet ride.

      I wonder the same thing; all those orange cones and lane closures but the roads get worse year after year. There just isn't enough money to keep up with the effect of delayed maintenance.

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  7. Well, you did ask, sort of.

    This is where I get to rant briefly on the topic of the problem in this country not being big government, but too many different governments. The Federal government was never meant to pay for all of the highway system, and traditionally the feds matched state funds. So one of the problems has to do with how the states disperse those funds, and what their priorities are-recognizing that the US highway system is not just interstates. For example, one of the two primary north south roads in Dallas is a US highway, in excellent condition. So when I leave Texas and cross into Oklahoma and realize I know where the state line is just because of the roads differential, that's not because the feds are broke. That's because Okahoma uses its highway funds elsewhere.

    I would also second Tom's note. You've traveled highways where there have been freezes and thaws and one of the worst winters on record. Its not a secret that those roads will be lucky to be fixed before the new snow hits. I actually don't think I 70 is so bad, but then I'm driving 70 or 80 in an SUV. I know that Arizona gets some ice, but eastern Colorado and Kansas have had both freezing and seventy degree temps in the same week this spring-sometimes twice over.

    The bottom line is that the users refuse to pay for the roads they drive on, buy refusing gas surcharge increases. I personally think that toll roads will increase, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Interstates were never meant to be used by the huge amounts of cars now on them.

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    1. You make an important point. There was a particular county road in Wisconsin that was literally falling apart. Right at the next county line the road instantly was smooth and in good repair. We noticed the same thing on I-70 in eastern Colorado. As soon as we entered Nebraska things became much, much better.

      We haven't increased the gas tax since 1993 - of course there isn't enough money to pay for the wear and tear of increased traffic.

      I will readily admit the roads in Phoenix are a blessing and I am spoiled. But, about 99.9% of the country doesn't live in Phoenix and needs help with infrastructure.

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  8. Central NY is facing a decision of what to do about route 81, north and south through the city. Its life span ends in a year or two. Huge controversy (among the power brokers of course) about whether to rebuild it, or bring it down to a boulevard through the city, rerouting traffic around the city for those traveling through.

    Road construction seems non-stop (slowing down commuters to a crawl), and yet our mayor is being criticized for pot holes that are not repaired fast enough. You would think that our property taxes (one of the highest in the nation) would make a dent in this problem, but it does not appear to be that way.

    Skaneateles (Fingerlakes resort town just south of here) has banned tractor trailers through its village, and this has caused quite a controversy. I see both sides of this issue. The locals have a quieter village with less damage to their roads, but truckers incur a larger expense rerouting around this village.

    When we go to Florida for the winter, we use much less gas than we do up north. Where we stay, there is so much to do within walking or biking distance. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for our home in the snow belt.

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    1. During my 6 six years in Syracuse I became very familiar with I-81 and its importance to the area. Whatever is decided life for commuters, truckers, and travelers will not be pretty.

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    2. Carole - left Baldwinsville for TN four years ago, and don't miss the winters one bit. That being said, the debate over what to do with I-81 through Syracuse has been going on for decades. I believe nothing will be done, certainly not in the near term, except for the taxpayers footing the bill for more and more "studies" on what should be done.

      Sorry to hear of your experiences with I-40, Bob. We are spoiled here in the far western portion of Eastern TN and throughout Central TN. Friends who have visited from states like NY are always amazed at how smooth I-40 is here. My only issue is the section of 40 east of Knoxville as you head towards VA and NC; the trucks have really carved that up, since tractor trailer traffic is extremely heavy on the highway.

      Try to get home with the RV in one piece, Bob.

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  9. As you say we spend a lot of money putting band aids on gaping wounds. I like the medical analogy it is very relevant to our mentality on this and the medical issues. Sometimes it is also where the money is spent. We recently had a one mile stretch of State road re-done close to us that cost about $4 million whereas a logical alternative way of doing it would have cost 1/10 that amount.

    Potholes are the new norm here in the Midwest it seems. :) But it does sound like you enjoyed yourself in our area. Our temps have been adnormally low for this time of year. I am very thankful for that. But as we say in this part of the country its not the heat but the humidity that gets to you.....

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    1. We have had a tremendous time in your neck of the woods, RJ. While we won't miss the flying bugs and humidity, we aren't looking forward to another month of 100 degree temperatures when we get home.

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  10. Oh the joys (?!) of extended road trips. There are similar issues in Alberta. It's often said that there is winter and then there's road repair season. We had a similar conversation about the change in the highway conditions when we crossed the AB/BC border and it's a standing joke when you cross the AB/ SK border to the east. Sometimes I wonder if it's an urban/rural issue. I know the powers that be will say it's a population issue. I do believe it boils down to political will. And I can't help but think that when the highway infrastructure was initiated, no one could have predicted the future increase in usage and they didn't know that they didn't know. I see so many burgeoning cities that have outgrown their infrastructure.

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    1. So Canada faces the same joys! Part of leadership is anticipating future needs or at least planning for what may happen. I'm afraid making the hard (and expensive) choice is not something many politicians are willing to do.

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  11. Good grief, Bob. You and many of the commentators are starting to sound like care-carrying Democrats. Raise gas taxes to we can afford to fix the Interstates? Criminal, I say. Suggest local governments might have some responsibility for public service? Socialism, obviously. You guys have the wrong philosophy. Come on now, let's cut some more taxes on the wealthy and big corporations, which obviously will produce more jobs, thus more tax revenue, and solve all out infrastructure problems. You guys need to get your heads on straight.

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    1. Is that your tongue I see pushing out your cheek?

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  12. Weather must be a factor. We do most of our car travel in the Southeast... GA, NC, SC, TN, KY because our family is scattered among those states. We do run into construction delays, but the roads in general are pretty good. Very few shake rattle and rolls!. But we lived for many years in the Northeast and Midwest. I remember some pretty bad roads even back then. Good to hear from you again. Hope you continue to have a great trip.

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    1. There were some very rough roads during our trip to Texas last year. I remember I-10 through the El Paso area as particularly torn up. But, in general, you and others are right: ice and snow are not good for roads. But, knowing that, those locales really have to dedicate more resources to maintaining critical roadways.

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    1. We have seen several Amish horse and buggie carriages on this trip. They may have found the answer.

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  14. One other internet comment.....possibly with tongue in cheek, I'm not sure, said......"The USA should invade the USA and win the hearts & minds of the people by improving the infrastructure, especially the roads and bridges, in the country."

    I'm not adding anything to the comment.

    pam

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  15. Back in 1960, during the peak of interstate construction, government spending (federal, state and local) on transportation was 8.13% of total government spending, currently it is 4.96%. For comparison purposes spending on pensions in 1960 was 1.43% vs 18.8% now, Defense was 35.2% in 1960 and 13.1% today, Spending on Healthcare at all levels of government has gone from 3.47% to 20.2% today.

    Back in 1960 total government spending was 27.8% of US GDP, it has grown to 36.3% now.

    So clearly the problem is not a matter of how much the government spending, but more a matter of priorities of where it is being spent. Today a higher percentage of US GDP is being spent by government then back in the peak period of construction of the interstate system, but a far lower percentage is being spent on transportation.

    I would also expect considering the hurdles faced today with legal and environment hurdles for any construction project that the money spent in transportation is far less efficient when it comes to miles built, even when adjusted for inflation.

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    1. You make some valid points. I agree completely that priorities are out of whack though you and I might disagree about what the proper priorities are. But, there is little argument that this country's infrastructure is suffering - roads, bridges, electrical distribution systems, sewers and water pipes.....you name it.

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  16. Will be interested in your overview of RV-ing your way through the summer, gas costs, pros and cons, etc. and what your plans are for future travel. Home safely yet?? Welcome back! I hope you do keep the blog up, even if it is just a now and then post!!

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    1. We arrive back sometime the week of September 8th. We have cut the trip short by about 10 days- we just felt 62 days was about right.

      Yes, I will have a recap of the costs and experiences after our return.

      I have decided to keep blogging. What is still a little undecided is the frequency - twice a week or every 4 days. But, I still have too much to say and readers have too much to contribute on a subject that continually evolves.

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