July 6, 2014

The Difference Between a Road and a Means of Transport

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times sighs, "America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes."

So yes, the Federal excise tax on gasoline, which helps pay for highway maintenance, has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993, quite unaffected by inflation or the slowly decreasing use of gasoline. And states and local authorities are broke.

Photo by Sascha Pöschl.

But the way road infrastructure is built and managed could also be a lot better. My dad, a retired civil engineer, always says that construction is far easier than maintenance. He especially sighs at "vanity" projects in developing countries, where developed-world roads are built, complete with beautiful overpasses and glorious bridges, but where maintenance funds are not assigned, so that the steel and concrete glory starts to crumble faster than you can say "repair funds".

Even in many places in the developed world, construction companies too often bid for either the building of a road, or a specific repair.

It's a recipe for repeat business: companies use the minimum in materials and quality that will satisfy the local code. No more. But skimping on the cost of materials often means that roads are not as durable as they could be. For the construction companies, that's great: they get invited back that much sooner to do repairs. Which is done to code, but no more. And so the cycle goes.

Here is an alternative business model: suppose your town / county / state invites bids, not for the construction or repair of a road, but for a means of transportation for, say, forty years.

This is something completely different from the building of a road. A means of transportation can be specified to be free of potholes and the like for the duration of the contract. Suddenly you don't need a building code: now you need a usage code.

You can be sure that a company will use better materials from the start: everybody knows that constant maintenance is expensive. They will go for the more durable materials, and the whole project will be much more in the sign of sustainability.

You can negotiate the contract so that the construction company also wins from the deal: a steady income for forty years sounds much more attractive than the nerve-wracking all-or-nothing bidding that occurs every five to ten years. The usage code can stipulate that any damage inflicted by the road (say, broken shock absorbers) be reimbursed by the construction company. After all, they are responsible for a decent means of transport, and have an ongoing obligation to provide safe roads. The whole may cost more than the way it's done now - on the other hand, there will be fewer car repairs on the part of the user.

Many European countries have bids for their roads this way, with greater or lesser success. In the case of Germany or the Netherlands, there are very few potholes of the rim-knicking kind. You have to work pretty hard to get your car to the point of needing new shock absorbers. Come to think of it, there are actually very few flat tires. It wouldn't be tolerated. (People do get spoiled driving this way).

There's also very little downtime: repairs and maintenance is done mostly at nighttime in the summer holidays: this minimises time lost in traffic jams. Even counting the construction workers' overtime, this still keeps down the total economic costs: after all, time lost to sitting in traffic jams costs money, too.

I don't have to add that, in the age of climate change, road construction needs additional provisions engineered in: roads need to be made resilient to extreme heat, extreme rainfall, extreme temperature swings.

Photo by Bert Marshall



You may also like:
1. The End of Potholes
2. Why are cars so small outside the US?
3. Alternatives to Asphalt
4. Car tires: Where plus-sizing is super-sexy


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