Poor Road Conditions Leading to Higher Repair Costs

Natalie Josef
September 27, 2010

Last night, I traveled from San Francisco to Oakland to pick up my partner from the airport. On the stretch of 880 from downtown Oakland to the airport, the road conditions were so bad, I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco. At some points, I swear my tires left the road. Going the speed limit actually felt too fast. With what I pay in taxes out here, I expect better—or at least not to fear for my life every time I hit the highway.

I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s driven on a highway lately that our nation’s roads are in poor condition, but a report released last week by TRIP, a transportation research group, reveals that nearly a quarter of the country’s major urban roads are in substandard or poor condition.

The report was based on 2008 data from the Federal Highway Administration, so it doesn’t reflect any road projects since then, but even the $814 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for road improvement in 2008 has only affected 28,000 miles of highway—our nation has 2.7 million miles of roads.

According to Jack Basso, director of program finance and management for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, “There is a dramatic need for investment. We need to increase investment and put a long-term federal investment plan in place."

How did this happen?

Much of the nation’s infrastructure dates back to post World War II or before—it is wearing out and we have not kept up with it. The costs of materials used for road maintenance has also increased by 55 percent over the last few years. More recently, state and local government funds have been devastated by the recession and have used funds merely to patch up potholes instead of initiating more significant reconstruction projects. According to Transportation California Executive Director, Bert Sandman, “transportation funding isn’t keeping pace with the rate of roadway deterioration.”

Additionally, overall vehicle travel increased by 29 percent from 1990 to 2008—travel by commercial trucks increased by nearly 50 percent. By 2030, according to TRIP, “vehicle travel is expected to increase 35 percent, and heavy truck travel is anticipated to grow by 64 percent.”

Which states have the worst roads?
Urban regions with populations of 500,000 or more were investigated in the study. Out of the top ten worst urban centers, six were in California, with San Jose topping the list. Other major cities in the top ten include Honolulu, New Orleans, New York-Newark, and Baltimore. With eight cities in the top twenty and seven more urban areas (with populations of 250,000 to 500,000) ranking in the top twenty secondary cities, California’s roads are the worst in the nation.

What does this mean?
Simply, it means more money—out of our pockets, not the government’s. Driving on poor roads accelerates vehicle deterioration, causing depreciation in value. It also leads to increased maintenance, fuel consumption, and tire wear.

In San Jose, which topped the list with 64 percent of its roads in poor condition, drivers end up paying $756 each year in additional repairs. In Dallas, which rounded out the top twenty, 34 percent of the roads were in poor condition, costing drivers an extra $539 each year. Overall, Americans are forking over an average of $420 a year in additional maintenance and repair costs.

What should we do?
According to the report, greater investment is “needed to ensure smoother rides, stimulate economic growth, and provide longer-lasting roads.” TRIP states “transportation agencies can reduce pavement life cycle costs by adopting a pavement preservation approach that emphasizes making early initial repairs to pavement surfaces while they are still in good condition and the use of higher-quality paving materials, which reduces the cost of keeping roads smooth by delaying the need for costly reconstruction.”

What can you do personally? Many insurance companies offer pot hole coverage under comprehensive policies. If you hit a pot hole, you will only need to pay a deductible; the insurance company would cover the rest of the damages. In some states, if you can prove the government knew about the pot hole beforehand and didn’t fix it, you may get reimbursed any repair costs accrued due to hitting the pot hole. And, as always, you can write or call your legislator. Even though it seems like a long shot, Congress is the body that decides transportation spending.

The bottom line
If we don’t fund transportation projects with our taxes or pay a higher gasoline tax, we end up paying for it later, and not just financially. A study published in 2009 revealed, “poor road conditions are the single most lethal contributing factor in traffic accidents, greater than speeding, alcohol, or the non-use of seat belts.”

I would much rather spend a few extra pennies at the gas station and have a smooth ride. Nothing in life is free, but you can't put a price on safety.


Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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