By Timothy Hens
As our state leaders develop New York’s budget for the coming fiscal year, the public should be concerned that adequate levels of state aid to local roads and bridges be a priority. Local governments own 87 percent of the roads and half of the bridges in this state.
For the last few decades, county and town highway superintendents have practiced well-established pavement preservation strategies that concentrate investments in cost-effective preventive maintenance. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, every $1 spent in maintaining a good road avoids spending $6 to $14 to rehabilitate or rebuild one that has deteriorated.
My colleagues and I continually stress the need for regular increases in the Consolidated Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS), the life blood of any local highway department. This funding has been held flat in the last five state budgets, and the latest executive budget has proposed another five years with no increases. In the meantime, inflation has eroded our buying power, with fuel costs up 190 percent, asphalt up 206 percent and materials up 57 percent over the last 10 years.
To make a bad situation worse, local highway departments are facing substantial losses in federal aid as a result of the new program that primarily directs funds to the major systems (interstates, arterials, expressways and major urban connectors) and away from locally owned roads and bridges.
As a result of frozen or reduced funding, counties and towns have not been able to keep up. In Genesee County, with 258 miles of county roads and 341 county-owned bridges and culverts, our funding falls woefully short of what is needed to keep up with an aging infrastructure. Our annual pavement preservation plan calls for the treatment of at least 52 miles (20 percent) of roads per year and the repair or replacement of seven bridges per year. In 2012, we were able to treat only 33.45 miles (about 64 percent of the plan) due to frozen funding levels and the high rate of inflation for materials. Additionally, last year the county was forced to close two bridges due to low load ratings. Without additional state support the county will be forced to downgrade several more bridges this summer. Lack of state and federal aid will also force the county to make some hard choices as we face a tsunami of bridge replacements for structures built right after World War II.
The maintenance, repair and strategic replacement of existing transportation infrastructure are required for safety and mobility and for New York State to remain economically competitive. The traveling public needs to be kept informed of the true conditions of our local transportation systems, and the critical need to support investment in the roads and bridges we rely on and can no longer be taken for granted.
Timothy Hens is Genesee County highway superintendent.