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The state of highways

Dec. 21, 2009
“This year's report shows the difficulties that many states are having when it comes to making across-the-board progress in road conditions. In many cases, we see two steps forward, one step back. And real progress in reducing urban congestion has slowed ...

This year's report shows the difficulties that many states are having when it comes to making across-the-board progress in road conditions. In many cases, we see two steps forward, one step back. And real progress in reducing urban congestion has slowed to a crawl.” –David Hartgen, lead author of the Reason Foundation's 18th Annual Highway Report

As the digging out continues here on the east coast from this weekend’s record-breaking snowfall (leaving many to wonder just when the heck ‘global warming’ will actually show up), some interesting news materialized on the highway front, courtesy of Reason Foundation's 18th Annual Highway Report.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, the Reason Foundation is a “free market” public policy think tank, with what many consider to be a very conservative bent. That being said, though, the numbers they use to compile their annual reports on state highway management and spending comes from the states themselves.

It’s also important to note that this is a “time capsule” report of sorts; meaning that we’re looking back in time to how state roadways fared in 2007, long before we reached the economic meltdown we’re living through today

Eleven indicators make up each state’s overall rating in the Reason Foundation’s annual report, covering highway expenditures, pavement and bridge condition, urban congestion, fatality rates and narrow lanes. The group noted that the overall condition of the state-owned highway system continued to generally improve from 2006 to 2007, yet key problems emerged. First, the percentage of deficient bridges worsened for the first time in 25 years and, and, after several years of improvement, the proportion of urban interstates in poor condition also worsened between 2006 and 2007.

The study finds over half of all state-owned highways across the country are congested and 25% of bridges are deficient or functionally obsolete. This downward slurge is occurring, however, even as per-mile total disbursements on state highways have increased 262% since 1984. Indeed, in 2007, the states spent over $109 billion on state-owned highways, a 10% increase over 2006.

Expenditures for bridge and capital actions increased even faster, 14.5%, from $54.66 billion to $62.57 billion, with capital and bridge expenditures now account for about 56.7% of the state highway budgets. Maintenance expenditures increased faster still, 17.2%, from $17.07 billion to $20 billion, accounting for about 18.2% of their budgets.

Yet in 2007, 151,101 bridges – 25.29% of the country's total – were deemed deficient and or functionally obsolete; a 1% worsening over 2006. In the two worst states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, over half of all bridges need improvement.

One big worrisome trend is the rise in administrative costs; a whopping 12.8%, from $7.02 billion in 2006 to $ 7.91 billion in 2007, and those costs now account for 7.2% of state highway spending. Think about that for a minute – nearly EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS a YEAR spent on shuffling paper.

The study continues to find wide variations among the states in road performance, and an increasing concentration of problems:

• About 53% of the poor-condition urban interstate mileage is in just four states; California, New York, New Jersey and Texas.

• About 64% of all the poor-condition rural interstate mileage in the U.S. is in just four states; California, New York, Alaska and Louisiana.

• About 49% of all the poor-condition mileage rural primary roads is in just five states; Alaska, Oklahoma, Iowa, California and South Dakota.

• Poor-condition mileage is increasingly a local problem rather than a national problem, with four states (California, Minnesota, Maryland and New Jersey) having more than 70% of their urban interstates congested.

All that being said, there’s a lot of good stuff in the Reason Foundation’s report as well. North Dakota, for example, still holds the top slot as the best performing road system – a ranking it’s held each year since 2001, scored well by having the least interstate and rural mileage in poor condition and ranking first in maintenance spending.

New Mexico continues its impressive improvement, rising from a dismal ranking of 27th in 2000 to the number two position in terms of overall performance and cost-effectiveness. Kansas is 3rd overall, with South Carolina (managing one of the largest state-owned highway systems in the country) in fourth place and Montana rounding out the top five.

Several states improved their rankings sharply from 2006:

Delaware moved up 17 positions from 28th to 11th by cutting disbursements without sacrificing condition.

Michigan moved up 12 positions from 42nd to 30th reporting a very large improvement in rural pavement condition.

Mississippi moved up 11 positions, from 38th to 27th by sharp improvements in both urban and rural interstate condition.

Utah improved 10 positions from 25th to 16th by substantially reducing the mileage of poor urban interstate.

New Hampshire moved up 7 positions from 46th to 39th by sharply improving rural and urban interstate conditions.

Twenty states, led by Nebraska, Montana and North Carolina, improved their systems while spending less than the national average. Ten other states, led by Ohio and Utah, improved their systems but spent more than the national average.

Then there are the systems of 10 states that worsened as they spent less than the national average, alongside another 10 states worsened even though they spent more than the national average. The Reason Foundation noted that New York, Hawaii (which only must manage less than 1,000 miles of roads no less!), New Jersey, California, Rhode Island and Alaska received the dubious honor of having the worst-performing highway systems in the nation.

Here are several other states that lost ground between 2006 and 2007:

Indiana fell 16 positions, from 15th to 31st due to a sharp increase in disbursements per mile and a sharp decline in urban interstate condition.

Vermont slipped 12 positions, from 30th to 42nd with a very large increase in poor rural and urban interstate mileage.

Oregon slipped 11 slots, from 11th to 22nd due to a recalculation of state-controlled mileage.

Missouri lost 10 positions, from 13th to 23rd resulting from a large increase in the budget and a quadrupling of maintenance funds. However, congestion decreased. The additional maintenance expenditure should show up in better system condition in future years.

Maine fell 6 slots from 22th to 28nd due to an increase in deficient bridges and worsened condition of rural arterials.

It’s interesting to note that the smallest state-owned road systems in the U.S. – Hawaii (999 miles) and Rhode Island (1,108 miles) – continue to score so poorly, while some of the largest – such as Texas (80,134 miles) and North Carolina (80,036) – continue to do well.

Despite the massive size of its roadway system, Texas ranks 17th in overall cost-effectiveness, while in contrast Hawaii, with the smallest system, ranks 46th in cost-effectiveness, the Reason Foundation noted; holding out hope perhaps that large roadway networks can indeed be managed efficiently.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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