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Aaron Renn: Solving the Infrastructure Crisis Depends on Local and State Governments

It's up to local governments to do what Washington can't – fix our ailing infrastructure. America's eyes are turning back to Washington as the latest in a long series of short-term federal transportation funding extensions is about to expire. Many hope increases in federal spending and the gas tax will be the answer for ailing American infrastructure. But the reach of federal funds is shorter than people think: To fix our neighborhood bridges and streets or fill nearby potholes, the real burden falls on local government.

By their very nature, our counties, cities and towns are responsible for a vast inventory of local streets – over 80 percent of their total mileage – that are largely ineligible for federal funding. True, these are often lightly traveled routes. But that's cold comfort if the street you live on is crumbling.

What's more, federal funding, at less than 10 percent of capital spending, is a small share of local transportation budgets. Local governments raise a significant share of their transportation funds themselves. In many places, localities get a significant share of the state gas tax but do not derive much revenue from motorist fees. Instead they have to get cash for streets from property taxes or general fund revenues – 56 percent of their own money comes from those two sources alone. These are the very same sources often used for critical services like police and fire protection. In an era of tight local budgets, this means street maintenance often gets shoved to the back of the line or squeezed out entirely.

Expansion of federal spending might incrementally make more money available to localities to repair major roads and bridges, but the reality is that a major part of America's local transportation challenge is simply not addressed by federal transportation spending.

To fix the streets many of us drive on every day, local and state governments will need to take responsibly for doing it themselves.

Significant local street maintenance shortcomings exist across America, from big cities to rural counties. Cities like Atlanta, Portland, Seattle and Toledo have catalogued over a billion dollars in infrastructure maintenance needs – each. Rural counties in places like Michigan, South Dakota and Iowa are turning paved roads back to gravel because they can't afford to maintain them.

The longer it takes to address these needs, the more expensive it will be. It can be three to four times as expensive to fix a road with advanced decay than one that is only modestly in need of repair. The same is true of bridges. The state of Rhode Island, for example, had to spend $167 million to completely replace a bridge because it had failed to maintain the original one.

State and local governments must take ownership of these challenges. This means casting a policy vision from which solutions can be crafted.

It doesn't make a lot of sense, for example, to spend money widening roads or building new ones without maintaining existing ones . Local governments need a "fix it first" principle that prioritizes maintenance over new building. States should also look to make residential street maintenance the responsibility of homeowner associations in new developments. If those developments are unable to pay for their own street maintenance, that's a red flag showing they are probably not financially viable for local governments to take on either.

In some cases, new revenues – such as state gas taxes – may be needed.

The precise solutions will be as diverse as America's communities. But it's from them and their state partners that a solution must come. Because our infrastructure challenge is just not going to be fixed by Washington alone, no matter how much money it spends.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of a report on this topic, titled “Beyond Repair? America’s Infrastructure Crisis Is Local.”

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Posted: October 21, 2015 Wednesday 03:30 PM