The cost of infrastructure is infinite.

Here’s a thought that hit me recently: In the long run, the cost of building infrastructure approaches free, while the cost of maintaining it is infinite.

Rt. 29 Sinkhole RepairRoads are a prime example. Since the advent of paved roads maintained by the state and federal governments, roads haven’t gone away. Virginia never says “Hey, listen, this four lane road? We really only needed two lanes now. So we’re going to just tear up this extra asphalt and return this land to the folks we seized it from me.” Those four lanes are forever. Now, it’s a fact that state government won’t exist infinitely. But it will exist indefinitely. We have to plan for it to continue on for the remainder of time, rather than assuming that we’ll all die in a nuclear holocaust within 150 years. The cost of maintaining infrastructure is enormously expensive. As the length of its existence continues, its proportion in relation to the cost of constructing it approaches infinite, with the construction cost approaching zero.

This isn’t to argue that we should ignore construction cost. Clearly, if we don’t have the money for something, we can’t build it. No, I’m suggesting just the opposite: that we can’t keep building new roads and assuming that we’ve gotten the expensive stuff done once that new cloverleaf is finished. That’s just the beginning of a long, very expensive commitment. Perhaps it’s time we modified our accounting to factor in the cost of maintenance, rather than continuing to pretend that it’s free.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

13 replies on “The cost of infrastructure is infinite.”

  1. I’m not sure I believe that the DOT or VDOT doesn’t factor in long term maintenance. You really think they ignore that?

  2. What VDOT does internally, I can’t say. But I know that for the purposes of public information and for legislation, nothing I’ve ever seen says “building this road will cost $150M, but maintaining it over the next 1,000 years will cost $1.2B.” Because if that were the case, we wouldn’t be rapidly approaching the point where the cost of maintaining our road network uses up every penny of transportation funding, with no money remaining to build new roads.

  3. You know, there are Roman roads and bridges that were built around 2,000 years ago and are still in use today. And yet a great many of the bridges that we’ve built just in the last 50 years in the US are in need of replacement in the next 10 years or so.

    I don’t know if a new road faced with stone pavers like the Romans used could be driven on at the kinds of high speeds that we drive on asphalt. But maintenance costs would drop way the hell down.

  4. Ever pay attention to the amount of asphalt VDOT contractors slather on the approaches to new bridges? The amount wasted is unbelievable.

    VDOT’s main concern revolves around its annual budget. It wants to make sure that it gets at least as much money as it did last year and to spend every penny allocated.

  5. When I first read this, a thought about telecommunications infrastructure came to mind.

    How many times did we all pay AT&T for the lines and satellites they put into service? All the companies now are reaping the benefit of the infrastructure that AT&T put up all those years ago. And the nature of their equipment is not comparable to roads and bridges.

    As a former Land Surveyor, I worked on many roads and bridges. I would say the biggest problem is that the contractors are usually allowed to get away with incredible lapses of quality in materials and workmanship.

    As an engineering inspector, I sent companies back many times to dig up areas of prospective road surfaces to make it right. If it doesn’t support asphalt the first time, how will it perform in 20 years? The contractors, without fail, tried lowballing and shaving an inch or two off the asphalt materials. Without constant monitoring, contractors on road projects will rob you blind.

    Build them like crap, and they will be crap almost from the first moment someone drives on them.

    Reassuring, huh?

  6. Wasn’t the GA considering private maintenance companies to take care of the roads?

    I know several of them have given money to … wait for it… Watkins Abbitt, Clarke Hogan, etc.

  7. The legislation that controls Virginia road budgets specifies that maintenance take precedent. So as funding decreases money is shifted out of planned construction to the maintenance budget which is relatively well known – as VDOT is constantly evaluating the condition of infrastructure. As an aside, a road engineer told me years ago that the interstates were designed to last 20 years. So the maintenance budget would approximate replacement/20 per year, adjusted for inflation. That is a big investment.

    Nothing in ancient Rome weighed 50 tons and pounded down the Appian Way at 80mph. Nor did the Romans salt and scrape their roads to keep them passable. On the other hand, our highways in Mediterranean-like SoCal last longer than they do in Upstate New York – which may explain why the Romans never did much roadbuilding in Northern England. They did however make an investment in a failed border fence which conservative ‘visionaries’ have rediscovered in their everlasting focus asswards. At least the roads promote commerce.

  8. 2018 was going to be the year in which the cost of maintenance used up 100% of the total road budget, leaving nothing for construction. I have to wonder whether the prior two sessions have had any impact on that date.

  9. 1. There are no surviving roman roads still being used in their original condition to move modern vehicles, or roman bridges carrying trucks and railroads over them. Even in Roman times, years of cart traffic wore deep ruts into the stone creating a sort of “autopilot”.

    2. As a trained economist, you must be aware of the various ways that are used to estimate the costs of government projects. Infinite period costing is not required because everything has a designed life, after which it will need to be replaced. With roads we delude ourselves by calling those funds “maintenance”, but when the entire road bed is replaced, it is a new construction on the old site.

    3. It is a common tactic of people who want to kill projects to estimate the costs based on the longest possible period of use (i.e. indefinite), and a equally misleading tactic by those who favor construction is to ignore future costs. The “right” answer is somewhere in the middle. The process we use to find it is called politics. Not a good a solution as when the scientist meritocracy rules the world, but it is what we have.

    4. Cost estimates serve two primary purposes: 1. to make a comparison between competing solutions, and 2, to assist in budget estimates for future operations and maintenance. The government bureaucracy that does not evaluate costs with both purposes in mind is incompetent.

    5. Governments typically may plan for many years into the future, but they are limited in what they can pay for by real, this-year money. I am sure i don’t need to point out to you the that the failure of our government to fund future obligations beyond the current year is not limited to road maintenance.

    –But I agree with your main point, as I understand it, that governments should consider the long term costs of their actions. I would apply the logic as well to all government activity.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Roci. I just want to point out that I’m not, in fact, a “trained economist.” I know nothing more about economics than was required for my political science degree, and that’s surprisingly little. It’s such an interesting topic, though, that I’ve been eyeballing a couple of economics classes at the local community college for the fall. As I’ve puzzled through this matter of how government should to consider the long-term costs of new commitments, it’s revealed to me a bunch of areas in economics where I should really learn a lot more.

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