Arizona Roads and Bridges

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According to a new report, Arizona was sixth in the nation for the number of roads in good condition. The state also tied for the third-lowest number of bridges that are structurally deficient. Only three percent of bridges were not up to standards in 2011, and 57 percent of the state’s roadways were in good condition. Robert Samour, ADOT’s Senior Deputy State Engineer of Operations, will talk about roads and bridges and the funding needed to keep them in good shape.

Ted Simons: According to a new report, Arizona's roads and bridges are in relatively good shape. Is the state prepared to maintain what exists and build new infrastructure? Joining us now is Robert Sahmour, ADOT's senior deputy state engineer of operations.
Ted Simons: Good to have you here, thanks for joining
Robert Sahmour: Ah, Thanks for having me.
Ted Simons: Conditions of Arizona roads, sounds like we're not doing too bad.

Robert Sahmour: We're not. A recent report did talk about roads in good condition, approximately 57% of our roads met that criteria. Interesting, we don't want to celebrate 57% roads are in good shape. We will continue to see the deterioration of the system based on increased travel, and you know, I've got to say our roads are in the shape they are in because of the dedicated people who work at ADOT. We have men and women on the roads night and day, weekends, maintaining those roads whether it's potholes, guardrail repair, incident management. We have a great partnership with the federal highway administration, and great partnership with our contractors that helps us to keep those roads in great repair.

Ted Simons: I wanted to ask you, what kind of repairs do you most see out there?

Robert Sahmour: It really depends on the region. I would say in the northern region where we have challenges due to weather, snow, rain, those areas, potholes, statewide we see challenges with guardrail repair. I didn't mention bridges, but bridge decks become a challenge due to different de-icers or salts used during snow-clearing operations. It's a myriad of challenges, sign knock-downs. But in general the crews are very proud of the work they have been able to do, and this ranking reflects that.

Ted Simons: As far as maintenance, how often are our roads in Arizona in need of maintenance? Is there a rotating schedule or planning involved?

Robert Sahmour: Typically we would build roads with a design life. Let's say 10 years would be a typical road maintenance cycle. Our crew resource out there based on vehicular accidents, sign knock-downs, pothole repairs, those unexpected repairs are done routinely throughout the year.

Ted Simons: The condition of Arizona's bridges are a little better even than the roads, huh?

Robert Sahmour: We ranked very well. The age of our infrastructure plays a part, relatively new infrastructure. The urban area certainly has been in an expansion program. Newer bridges may be designed with a 50-year life. I mentioned earlier some challenges due to weather in the North country, do pose a significant workload for us.

Ted Simons: With these bridges is it more of a maintenance deal now as opposed to building new? What seems to be the focus?

Robert Sahmour: Good question. We were in an expansion mode for years. And we look at projects in three different categories Expansion or adding new lanes, new freeways, modernization which would be upgrading guardrail, signs or lighting or preservation. We were in an expansion mode for years. Now we're in a preservation mode where you're going to see more emphasis on the fix it first approach. Mill and overlays of asphalt, replacement of bridge decks and those type of projects, to try to preserve the infrastructure we've invested in so it'll last into the future.

Ted Simons: I would imagine that change of strategy is because of funding concerns. How are roads, bridges, the transportation infrastructure, explain how those are funded.

Robert Sahmour: The two primary funding sources for projects in general in the system are the gas tax and the vehicle license tax. The challenge that we have with the gas tax is that it hasn't been increased since 1992. It's a flat 18 cents per gallon. The vehicle license tax is related to new car purchases and registrations of vehicles. During the downturn of the economy you saw less new cars being purchased. You also saw people holding on to older cars. As the value goes down so does the valued tax component on the individual's vehicle.

Ted Simons: You saw the price of gas increasing, people buying more fuel efficient vehicles, less revenue, correct?

Robert Sahmour: Correct. They are able to go further for the same amount of gas purchased. That puts additional wear and tear on the system.

Ted Simons: Indeed. Federal funding, seeing less there, as well?

Robert Sahmour: Seeing some downturn in federal funding. We look to our partners to supply the lion's shares of the funding we use currently for projects.

Ted Simons: I read about a $350 million budget for roads and things, but it sounded a little confusing. Has there been a budget cut regarding this particular issue?

Robert Sahmour: When we talk about projects, we look at a five-year construction program. The five-year construction program is based on the cash flow available based on projections of the gas tax and vehicle license tax. We have a downturn on those sources, so we had to trim approximately $350 million out of the five-year program. That program goes before the state transportation board every year and we roll out public hearings in the spring, specifically March, April and May. Then that program is voted on. So the five-year horizon has about $350 million less than it did the year before.

Ted Simons: This is a rolling horizon?

Robert Sahmour: It is. So we're at about five-plus billion for the five-year program. It averaged out to a little over a billion dollars a year per fiscal years for projects.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, and with the funding sources as they are, what's being done to look at perhaps something more stable, more dedicated funding, what's going on out there?

Robert Sahmour: There are a lot of ideas being discussed. The policymakers are looking at everything from increasing the gas tax, looking at indexing the gas tax. Within the Maricopa County area we have a gas tax dedicated to funding freeways. There are other options available to us through public-private partnerships. So there are a lot of options on the table. Obviously none of them are popular because in one way or another we need to fund that. But the importance of putting Arizona on that global economic freeway to make sure that we are a player in the global economy, we need to fund those freeways, those local roadways to maintain that network, so that we have a vital economy.

Ted Simons: And real quickly, you mentioned lawmakers are looking at ideas. Are they seriously looking at these ideas?

Robert Sahmour: I know here in the region it was a topic at the transportation policy committee today. I know that we have been talking. There's a transportation train corridor alliance out there looking at these opportunities, looking at freight opportunities, looking at rail. On the long-term horizon we'd like to see an I-11 come in and continue to connect us to the global economy. I know they are looking at them and looking at those funding opportunities.

Ted Simons: Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

Robert Sahmour: Thank you very much.

Robert Samour:Senior Deputy State Engineer of Operations, ADOT;

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