How Clogged Roads are Draining this Small Plumbing Business
Written by J.D. Harrison
Our outdated and overworked highways are slowing our nation’s small businesses, including Michael and Son. Photo credit: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg
It happens like clockwork, Chris Thompson says. Every year, right around March, as the cold weather starts to give way to spring’s warmer temperatures, the trucks start rolling in with the same problems.
“It’s usually the tires, the brakes and suspension systems — the typical pothole damage,” says Thompson, the marketing manager at Michael and Son Services, a family-owned plumbing, heating and air conditioning company based in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s great business for mechanics, but it’s pretty bad for us.” Michael and Son, which has been in business for four decades, spends more than a million dollars on vehicle repairs annually, a large share of that directly tied to wear and tear that the firm’s roughly 500 vehicles sustain from outdated and overextended roads. And yet, when it comes to poorly maintained transportation infrastructure, those repair costs may not even be the biggest problem for Michael and Son’s business.
“Our service areas are some of the most congested in the country, and traffic causes extensive delays nearly every day during our service hours,” says Thompson, noting that the firm’s service area extends from Charlotte, North Carolina to Baltimore, Maryland. It includes traffic-laden metropolitan regions like Richmond and Norfolk in Virginia as well as the Greater Washington area — routinely ranked worst in the country for congestion. “Not being able to get a tech out to the next job in a timely fashion means we’re upsetting customers, and in some cases, we’re losing them,” Thompson said. “Everybody wants the next available technician, and we’re not the only company out there. So if our guys can’t get out there in the promised time period, we lose that business.” On the importance of investing in better transportation infrastructure, he added: “It should be a top priority. We can’t do our jobs without reliable roads.”
Basm Mansour (center right), owner and manager at Michael and Son, accepts an award recognizing the company’s volunteer efforts at a local food pantry. Photo courtesy of Michael and Son.
Michael and Son isn’t alone, nor is the Mid-Atlantic region the only stretch where roads, bridges and highways are long past their prime. As U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue recently wrote, “the U.S. Interstate System is nearly 70 years old — and roads are typically built to last for about 30 years.” He later noted that 32 percent of the country’s major roads are now in poor or mediocre condition, while 42 percent are “snarled with congestion.”
Barring action from Congress, the situation isn’t likely to improve anytime soon.
That’s because the Highway Trust Fund, a federal resource that helps pay for road construction and repairs across the country, has nearly run out of money. Congress last month approved a two-month extension that replenished the fund through the end of July, and last week, the House put forth a bill that starts to map out a long-term plan.
However, there’s very little consensus over how to pay for the work, and without a resolution in the coming weeks, the fund will soon be running on empty.
For Michael and Son, that would mean more congestion and more vehicle repairs.
For the rest of the country, it would mean more headaches and additional travel costs.
“Poor conditions cost the average motorist $324 a year in additional vehicle repairs,” Donohue wrote. “Every year U.S. drivers lose 5.5 billion hours sitting in congestion, and more than 2.9 billion gallons of gas are wasted in idling traffic.”
Rather than continuing to kick the can down the road, Donohue added, “Congress must focus on a long-term solution.” He and others have advocated for a small increase in the federal gas tax – essentially a user fee – which represents the largest source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund but has remained flat since 1993. As Donohue noted, “it is a fair solution, asking those who use the roads to help make them better and safer.”
Higher fuel taxes would see Michael and Son pay a little bit more at the pump, but as Thompson noted, the savings his company would see on repairs alone – to say nothing of faster service times, better customers experience and safer roads for the company’s 500 drivers – would outweigh the extra pennies-per-gallon at the gas station. “We spend a lot of money, especially after the winter season, on those repairs,” he said. “If we could minimize those costs by paying a few extra cents on gas, we would benefit.”
Think the U.S. needs a long-term infrastructure plan? Tell Congress to finish its work.