In 2010, John Fisher lost his wife while driving along Alabama’s weathered Interstate 20. Concrete kicked up by another car flipped through Fisher’s windshield. The piece that struck his wife was from a broken pothole patch.

Out of 33,000 deaths on U.­S. highways every year, half involve compromised road conditions.

Of course, the real problem with our transportation infrastructure isn’t its “crumbling” or catastrophic disintegration. It’s that systems need regular upgrades in good times and lean, and we happen to be in the latter. Times like these bring into question what’s worth refurbishing and whether serious disrepair is a good excuse to bag old designs for new. After all, most U.­S. systems for aviation, railway, maritime, and public transport don’t exactly showcase world-class innovation; current road and bridge conditions vary about as much as the geography they traverse.

Consider that vehicle miles traveled on paved roads providing “Good” ride quality — a tidy Dept. of Transportation quantification — have actually risen in the last decade, mostly thanks to highway improvements. Beyond the offramp, your car’s shocks are in for a workout: Rural major collectors (country roads), urban minor arterials, and urban collectors (side streets) are worse for wear, with only about a third rated Good. This is also where federal funding gives way to state and local dollars from taxes on property, sales, and gasoline. Disparities betray national priorities: For example, one might see new highway off-ramps accommodating exurban development a few miles from inner-city byways left to deteriorate.

For bridges, the main issue is that many are dated traffic bottlenecks. Ominous-sounding DOT bridge ratings usually describe the likelihood of congestion, not collapse: Structurally deficient bridges (71,177 out of 603,259 at last count) are prone to flooding or have defects necessitating load restrictions. Functionally obsolete bridges (78,477) are not designed for current levels of traffic.

Normally, the DOT fixes such problems with gasoline-tax proceeds and occasional cash infusions. Shortfalls in recent years can be traced to numerous forces: Most state and federal gasoline taxes haven’t been adjusted for inflation in over a decade; better fuel economies have curbed consumption; vehicle miles driven have fallen off; the stock of adult drivers climbs modestly; teenagers are choosing the Internet over driver’s licenses and the open road.

The federal $50 billion “Fix it First” program aims to close shortfalls and upgrade public transportation and airports. It augments the $40 billion annually dedicated to highways and smaller budgets for aviation and rail. Gas-tax increases remain unpopular, so the program also encourages add-on projects through private financing backed by federal loans.

In a similar approach, 25 states facing budget shortfalls are looking to fund road improvements by privatizing highways — nearly 80 major U.­S. highways plus bridges and tunnels when it’s all said and done. Short-term benefits are clear, but long-term effects are not: Typically, leasing roads or leveraging toll revenue through bonds raises cash for improving highways and byways alike. Deciding which ones get upgrades provides innumerable opportunities for debate.

These modes of funding are based on the assumption that good infrastructure pays for itself. In fact, transportation systems aren’t designed to make money or even break even, but to facilitate the movement of goods and give people efficient travel options to conduct their affairs. If you don’t buy that argument, consider that subsidies always pay for the construction of transportation infrastructure, and partially fund its upkeep. In return, a few hundred million people move 5 trillion miles yearly; 20 million tons of goods, $14 trillion worth, are transported. Accepting that infrastructure operates at a net loss to support commerce and society would help to right-size reinvestment for projects that offer the most economic and social benefit.

© 2013 Penton Media, Inc.