“But they just fixed this highway last year!” It’s the annual anguished cry of the commuter and the frequent frustration of the road tripper just trying to have a pleasant vacation. Why are the same roads under construction every year? There are many reasons behind this all-too-familiar issue, ranging from the age and design of the roads to population growth and changing weather patterns.
The Roots of the Problem
According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), America’s highways need constant attention and repair for several reasons.
One major contributor is the age of our roads. Many were built more than 50 years ago and are in dire need of maintenance or complete reconstruction. As the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) states, one out of every five miles of highway is in poor condition.
Weather also plays a significant role in the need for road repairs. Erosion caused by rain, snow, and other weather events can break down road surfaces, supporting structures, and drainage systems—necessitating frequent maintenance.
The original design and engineering used in the construction of roads may also account for their current state. Many highways were built serially, one section at a time, which means they must be maintained that way, too. This method keeps costs down, but it means that crews must perform regular road rehabilitation or replacement section by section, leading to seemingly perpetual construction zones.
Population growth and increased heavy truck traffic put enormous pressure on America’s highways, which were originally designed to facilitate light passenger car use. This extra traffic means more wear on roads, leading to a significantly higher frequency of repairs than in the past.
Finally, cost often trumps durability when it comes to selecting road construction materials. In many cases, budget constraints often force city managers and state engineers to choose the cheaper option (asphalt) instead of more expensive solutions (thick layers of concrete) that might save money in the long run. Cheaper, short-term solutions leave us continually repairing the same stretches of road.
Experts and policymakers are exploring solutions to mitigate the constant need for construction on US highways. One strategy involves seeking out new materials, technologies, and design methods that promise increased durability and longevity, such as permeable pavements and high-performance concrete.
Cities and counties facing increased risks of flooding due to climate change use various strategies to prevent erosion around culverts, which in turn helps prevent premature wear on roadways by directing floodwaters away from roads. Residents of flood-prone areas can help prevent erosion by planting rain gardens and supporting efforts to preserve wetlands in their communities.
What To Expect
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides 110 billion dollars for roads, bridges, and major infrastructure projects. Although it means being prepared when traveling and expecting to endure even more seemingly everlasting road construction on the same roads, we should expect to see improvements in the durability and longevity of our highways. The next time you find yourself stuck in traffic due to construction, remember that infrastructure improvements are necessary to keep our roads safe and functional.