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Welcome to the Pothole Nation


Citizens fill in as cities and states lack funds for roadwork

Steve Shaya grew tired of looking at a pothole in his street in the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck. So the 45-year-old civil engineer bought about $20 worth of asphalt patch and filled the hole himself last summer. "It was not only an eyesore, it was unsafe," he says.

For many Americans, the nation's rutted roads are among the most visible unhealed wounds of the Great Recession. Repairs have become an unaffordable luxury for cash-strapped cities and states. Now pols elected in November's Republican surge are preaching fiscal restraint and vowing not to raise taxes. Gasoline tax receipts, which provide federal and state cash for roads, are down—a result of fewer miles being logged and a switch to more efficient cars. Combined with severe winter weather putting more than the usual stress on roads, it all adds up to a pothole-infested nation.

Hamtramck, a city of 20,000, has asked Michigan to let it file for bankruptcy protection. There isn't enough spare cash to repave a single street, says Mayor Karen Majewski. The blight has spawned blogs about potholes and websites such as savemytire.com, where motorists from around the country can download smartphone applications listing the locations of gaping holes. The website for the Tacoma Weekly, a community newspaper in Washington, reports a boost in readership for its "Pothole Pig" feature—photos of a ceramic pig positioned in some of the city's more spectacular potholes, as chosen by readers.

Humor aside, the parlous condition of roadways is likely to get worse. States face deficits of $125 billion in the next fiscal year, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They have only about $9.4 billion in federal stimulus funds remaining for roads, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. About half the organization's members expect construction spending to fall this year. Just 14 percent foresee an increase. "The outlook is very bleak," Simonson says.

This fiscal year's projected $1.5 trillion federal deficit is also part of the problem. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Feb. 3 proposed trimming nonsecurity, discretionary programs to 9 percent below 2010 levels, for a $43 billion cut over the seven months ending Sept. 30. House Republican leaders also rewrote procedural rules so budget cutters could restrain spending from the federal Highway Trust Fund, which faces insolvency next year without an influx of money.

New Jersey's transportation trust fund is forecast to run out of money for new projects this year as debt payments eat up all its revenue. New York is short of cash for needed projects, such as a replacement for the 55-year-old Tappan Zee Bridge. California, with a budget deficit of $25 billion, spends less than half of the $6 billion a year needed to keep its roads repaired, says James Earp, a state transportation commissioner who heads a construction industry trade group. "There's just no identifiable source for the money, and I don't see that there will be anytime soon," he says.

The bottom line: America's rutted roads are likely to decay further as Congress, states, and cities balk at new taxes and instead look for spending cuts.

Portion of U.S. urban roads that are in poor condition: 24%

Annual average cost per vehicle for repairs caused by potholes and bad pavement: $402

At the website of the Tacoma Weekly, a "Pothole Pig" feature displays photos of a ceramic pig sitting in city potholes. It's the site's ninth-most-visited item

EZ Street, a cold-asphalt manufacturer in Miami, sells a DIY solution for about $20: "The Pothole Patch," a 35-pound bag of premixed asphalt that "works in any temperature"

Data: The Road Information Program

With Raquel Christie. Selway is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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