WHAT DOES A POTHOLE REALLY COST?
by Dave Anderson, PE
It seems that everyone is waking up to the cost of infrastructure, especially when it starts to break down. Even GEICO has stepped up with its newest and freshest spokesmodel (move over Caveman) – the Pothole – to point out the ills of decaying roads and the costs associated with them.
Of course GEICO is selling insurance, but their message is a clear reminder of what we have to pay when elements of our society (in this case asphalt) begin to crumble.
But what does fixing pothole actually cost?
The answer depends entirely on what unit of measure you use. Lets look at it from a construction perspective. When a significant pothole is fixed, there are some necessary cutting out around the edges, additional stone is placed and tamped, finished by a hot patch of asphalt, sometimes rolled depending on its size and shape. While the work is so easy – a caveman could do it – it could take four to eight laborers to complete the task. Add the bill of materials and labor up, and you find fixing that the pothole costs $500.
But what happens when we change our question just a bit?
What if we ask "How much does a pothole cost per person that benefits from the patch?" Here we see some very revealing numbers. Let's look at the $500 pothole in the middle of a downtown main street and another at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac.
On average, the particular road being patched serves over 20,000 vehicles per day, including buses, automobiles, and bicycles. This translates conservatively to over 100,000 people served daily by the road being patched.
Here the math is simple and efficient. Those people, if asked to pay for the pothole, would have to pony up one half of one cent apiece for the fix. Not bad since the patch helps the buses ride smoother, the cars don't end up in the shop, and the cyclists don't end up in the ER.
The patch of the pothole at the end of Serenity Way, a cul-de-sac feeding four homes with its sixteen inhabitants, yields a much more problematic answer. Taking the sixteen people, throwing in the mail truck, friends stopping by, and other various deliveries, we may get to thirty people a day served by this area to be patched. Now we are looking to charge $17 per person served for the one pothole patch. Remember, downtown, the collection plate was passed for less than one penny per person.
Of course, all potholes need to be patched, and that is the problem. Our patterns of development have not fully considered the cost of keeping the infrastructure going when it starts to give out. Moreover, we don't pass a collection plate, we collectively pay taxes. Is it not easy to see that as the potholes grow, our money runs out, simply on buying asphalt? And that is but one element of our aging infrastructure system.
It is vital as we discuss and debate the future of how we develop our communities and its need for taxpayer money, that we recognize the long-term funding requirements to keep those investments up. Those developments that heap an unmanageable burden on the citizens (both short and long-term) should be held to account for that. Better still, perhaps we should prevent those types of developments altogether.
There are many inhabitants of the suburbs that would suggest high density development would reduce property values around them. But those that would argue for low density in the suburbs because they want their "space" are asking for the $17 per-person-per-pothole fix.
Here's my take. Low density suburbs are most in danger of decay, because decisions of how we spend the limited taxpayer money in the future will begin by politicians asking a new and reasonable question "How many people is this helping?"
When that happens, those who live at a cul-de-sac's end have my sympathy, for they may have a very rough road ahead – one filled with unfixable potholes.