The Fix-it Approach

Our View: Spending To Maintain Roads Is Wise But Can't Be The Whole Picture

July 06, 2009

When homeowners remodel, the temptation is always great to purchase something shiny and new, whether that's a bigger closet, a new bath or a backyard swimming pool. But the better choice is usually to invest first where it counts - in making sure the basic foundation and infrastructure will last. Without leak-free windows or sound plumbing, the rest is immaterial.

That's essentially the reasoning behind Maryland's decision to direct transportation stimulus funds primarily into maintaining the existing transportation system rather than expanding upon it. It also helped that the state's strategy meets the "shovel ready" requirements of stimulus spending that's put hundreds of people to work.

Last week, environmental groups and advocates of smart growth hailed Maryland's approach as one of the best in the nation for spending 94 percent of its eligible highway funds on system preservation, compared to the national average of slightly under two-thirds.

Critics immediately pounced on the strategy as wasteful because, some apparently concluded, anything that doesn't relieve existing traffic congestion is an extravagance. But resurfacing roads, upgrading controls, installing traffic barriers and similar projects can not only help keep cars and trucks moving; they are also critical for preventing accidents and keeping insurance costs down.

A recent national study found that road-related conditions - ranging from potholes to bad design (too-narrow shoulders or a lack of pavement markings are prime examples) - were a factor in 22,000 fatalities and cost the public about $217.5 billion each year.

Maryland's $225 million in highway stimulus spending can't fix all the problems. Road maintenance needs easily surpass that figure, and the recession has already caused the state to cut back on transportation spending by more than $1 billion over the next six years.

Some have also complained that Maryland isn't spending enough stimulus dollars on transit. But that, too, is short-sighted. Building Baltimore's proposed Red Line alone will cost more than $1 billion, and its design and construction must be approached judiciously or it's likely to be flawed (witness Baltimore's first light rail effort) and lose public support.

Wasteful spending isn't the biggest problem in transportation, it's the lack of money to finance projects of any kind. The Obama administration wants to delay the matter for the next 18 months with stop-gap solutions, and in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has yet to come up with a good way to finance the state's future transportation needs - and probably won't until after the 2010 election.

So while it's great that Maryland's transportation caretakers are investing in a better proverbial roof over our heads today, the next improvement projects can't be put off too long. The longer such maintenance is deferred, the bigger the bills in the end.

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