Big City Breakdown

Aug. 1, 2005
As Federal legislators seem unable or unwilling to agree on a highway bill, our roads continue to crumble, especially in and around our cities. One out of every four miles of Interstate, freeway and other important local routes in urban areas suffer from poor pavement conditions, according to a recent analysis of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reports. And they've been getting worse every year

As Federal legislators seem unable or unwilling to agree on a highway bill, our roads continue to crumble, especially in and around our cities. One out of every four miles of Interstate, freeway and other important local routes in urban areas suffer from poor pavement conditions, according to a recent analysis of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reports. And they've been getting worse every year since 1998.

As bad as one-in-four sounds, many cities would be happy to find their roads in such good shape, according the analysis done by TRIP, a non-partisan transportation research group. The Kansas City area, for example, has 71% of the pavement on its major roads rated as substandard. You can't blame tough winters, either, for the poor showing by so many cities. There's a lot of sunshine and warm weather in San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, but between 67% and 58% of their roads are in bad shape. In fact, TRIP says only three of our large metro areas — those with populations over 500,000 — meet the one-in-four standard and only 11 have at least half of their major roads in good condition.

Why such bumpy roads? As the first part of our “Roads to Hell” series points out this month, part of the problem is money, or lack of it. Not only are increases in construction and repair costs outstripping the fuel taxes that fund the majority of that work, but some states have also begun raiding designated highway funds to cover general budget shortfalls. It's no accident that California has so many cities on the bad-road list — in just the last four years it's transferred $5 billion from its transportation fund to the general coffers.

But money isn't the only issue and there's plenty of blame to go around, including a good share for trucking. While moisture from rain or snow creates the conditions for deterioration, it's traffic that provides the pounding that does the damage. While overall vehicle miles traveled in urban areas have increased 41% since 1990, heavy-truck traffic has grown by 58% over that same period. And FHWA projects that truck travel will grow another 47% over the next 15 years, compared to a 40% increase in traffic overall.

Not only are trucks traveling more, but simple physics argue that their much heavier weight is far more damaging than that of even the largest SUV. Given trucking's success in increasing productivity by decreasing empty miles and boosting average payloads, the weight differential between cars and trucks can only be growing.

So mix more, heavier traffic with higher repair costs and not enough money to maintain roads, and you end up with the current lousy state of our roads.

Money alone won't be enough to fix them, although finally getting a highway bill from Congress will go a long way to help. We also need to be smarter about how we build roads in the first place and how we keep them in good shape, as well as how we address the entire question of traffic congestion. And like it or not, we also have to re-examine the way we raise the necessary money and come up with an equitable system that spreads the costs fairly among all users.

E-mail: [email protected] Web site: fleetowner.com

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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