We continually hear about an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, a malady from which Virginia has not been spared. Talk of pot-holed streets, tottering bridges and crumbling highways invariably moves to talk about the need to spend more on infrastructure, which morphs into raising taxes — never by talk about paring back infrastructure that have outlived its economic usefulness.
However, there is a growing body of commentary suggesting that the problem may not be too little infrastructure but too much — too much of the wrong kind of infrastructure in the wrong place. The drum-bangers for more infrastructure spending ignore a fundamental reality: The more infrastructure you build, the more you have to maintain. The more maintain, the more you spend on maintenance. The more you spend on maintenance, the less there is to spend on new stuff.
Writing in New Geography, John Sanphillippo focuses on the disproportionate resources devoted to paving and maintaining subdivision roads in New Jersey. Based on his description, New Jersey should rename itself from “the Garden State” to “the Asphalt State.” The New Jersey Highway Trust Fund is near bankrupt, he writes. Unless the gas tax is raised, all revenue will go exclusively to debt service. And we thought we had problems in Virginia!
Consider the dynamics in the historic Water Witch subdivision near Sandy Hook. The Home Owners Association maintains gravel subdivision roads. Writes Sanphillippo:
When people believe their property tax money entitles them to certain things they often have high expectations. They tend to have a very different attitude when they know they’re going to be writing a check directly for the level of service they ask for. This difference in who pays for the roads leads to different outcomes.
Back in the late 1980’s I was privy to HOA meeting debates where some members demanded that the roads be paved. They were tired of the ruts, mud puddles, and problems of snow removal. The dirt roads were one of the things that had kept property values depressed for decades. So a consulting engineer was brought in and explained exactly what it would cost to pave the roads. It would be many millions of dollars divided by the forty-two homes in the community. That conversation came to a halt instantly. So much for paved roads at Water Witch. The compromise was to maintain the gravel roads to a slightly higher standard with annual adjustments that were far more cost effective.
When government pays for subdivision roads — or bridges, highways or mass transit — people tend not to care about cost. After all, someone else is paying for it. When confronted with the reality of paying themselves, they have a very different attitude.
Here in Virginia, people get frustrated by traffic congestion, which costs them considerable time and inconvenience. They demand that “government” fix the problem — just don’t raise their taxes. Someone else should pay. When it comes down to forking over their own money, people display a remarkably high tolerance for congestion. If they have to pay for it, they’ll usually opt to plug in their iPod and put up with an extra ten minutes of driving.
This reality — that people always want more of something if someone else is paying for it but will settle for less if they have to pay for it themselves — suggests that we should apply an acid test to transportation projects whenever possible: Can the project be paid for with tolls or user fees? If there’s enough demand, the project should be built. If the demand isn’t there, it shouldn’t be.
Questions we should be asking ourselves: Why should the public be asked to pay to maintain non-through subdivision roads? Why should the public be asked to pay for rural roads that carry barely any traffic? What percentage of Virginia’s maintenance spending is consumed by lightly traveled subdivision roads and country roads — and how many more miles of each do we continue to build year after year? In other words, how much of our infrastructure “crisis” is entirely self-inflicted?
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on February 13, 2015)