Rotting roads

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“The nation needs to develop a new long-term vision for its highway system that would include improving conditions and safety and reducing traffic congestion.” -William M. Wilkins, executive director, The Road Information Program


It‘s no secret that our rural and urban roads, alongside highways and bridges, are in sorry shape these days. The question we need to answer is twofold: how bad off are they and what can we do about it?


According to a new study released by The Road Information Program (which gets compacted down into ‘TRIP,‘ one very slick acronym) deteriorating urban pavement conditions cost the average driver in the U.S. some $413 a year in terms of additional vehicle operating costs due to accelerated vehicle deterioration, additional maintenance needs and increased fuel consumption.


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TRIP, a national transportation research group, also says its study found that roughly 23% of the nation‘s major metropolitan roads - interstates, freeways and other critical local routes -are in poor condition, resulting in rough rides for truckers and motorists alike. Not surprising, Los Angeles and the cities of San Francisco and Oakland have the largest amount of poor pavement out of all the metropolitan locations in the country (65% for L.A. and 62%, respectively, for San Francisco and Oakland) while (and this shocks me!) Washington D.C. - the U.S. capitol - only has about 30% of its roadways in serious disrepair.


What‘s that mean in terms of dollars? Well, for drivers in Los Angeles, it costs an extra $778 a year in extra vehicle maintenance and fuel - almost twice the national average. “With state and federal transportation funding falling short, the cost of materials and repairs rising and traffic volumes increasing, transportation agencies will face a significant challenge in improving urban pavement conditions,” said William Wilkins, TRIP‘s executive director.


Now, TRIP puts out a study like this almost every year and though it does a good job trying to be objective about the issue, trucking gets dinged repeatedly in their roadway analysis - simply because (and it‘s the truth) trucks weigh a good deal more than cars, thus putting more pressure on pavement surfaces.


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Overall travel on urban roads increased by 39% from 1990 through 2005, but urban travel by large commercial trucks grew at an even faster rate, increasing by 49% from 1990 to 200, TRIP noted. “ Large trucks place significant stress on road surfaces,” said Wilkins. “While overall vehicle travel is expected to increase by approximately 30% by 2020, the level of heavy truck travel nationally is projected to increase by about 39% by 2020.”


There‘s a way to address this, of course. If we raise the weight limit on commercial trucks - from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds - and add an extra axle to the trailer, we‘ll be able to reduce the number of trucks on the roads while not sacrificing any freight capacity. That extra axle will help redistribute the added weight, by the way, so there wouldn‘t be any additional pressure put on the pavement surface.


However, size and weight increases for truck are pretty much dead on arrival in Congress, according to recent comments by Rich Schweitzer, an attorney that serves as general counsel for the National Private Truck Council.


“We want to look at increasing truck size and weight to six axles and 97,000 pounds, explore using 333-foot doubles using current bridge formulas and axle-weight limits, and propose truck-only lanes,” he explained during a speech at the 9th annual fleet management conference in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, last week, put on by PHH Truck Services. “Congress isn‘t on board with any of this.”


Back to TRIP‘s study: Although the share of major urban roads in poor condition has decreased since 2002, conditions are likely to worsen in the future under current transportation funding projections. The group said the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) expects that, through 2025, the nation will fall short of the cost of maintaining current urban pavement conditions by $119 billion and will fall short of making significant repairs by $270 billion.


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TRIP further found that maintaining urban roadways in their current condition would require a 56% increase in annual funding, while significantly improving the physical condition of urban roadways would require a 126% increase in annual funding.


There‘s more gloomy news to report, unfortunately. Federal funding for highway repairs and improvements in the fiscal year 2009, starting on October 1, 2008, may be reduced as a result of a forecast deficit of $3.2 billion in the highway account of the Federal Highway Trust Fund.


On top of that, 18 states expect to face budget shortfalls totaling more than $14 billion during the current 2008 fiscal year, with 25 states expecting to face budget shortfalls of at least $36 billion during fiscal year 2009, largely as a result of shrinking tax revenues. Because most states are not allowed to run a deficit or borrow to cover their expenditures, said TRIP, it is likely that states will have to consider drawing down reserves, cutting expenditures or raising taxes.


The cost of roadway improvements is escalating as well, TRIP found, because the price of key materials needed for highway and bridge construction is increasing rapidly. Between January 2004 and January 2008, the average cost of materials used for highway construction, including asphalt, concrete, steel, lumber and diesel has increased by 46%.


Hoo boy!!! Not exactly a recipe for warm and fuzzy feelings about the future of our road networks, is it?

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