The state of highways

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It’s an extremely lagging indicator, for sure, as it’s based on data gathered between 2008 and 2009, but that aside, according to Reason Foundation’s20th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems, our nation’s roadway networks seem to be in pretty good condition. (Well, at least four years ago they were!)

Perhaps the most important theme to be extracted from this report, though, is the nod given to the age-old American ability to quickly tighten belts when things get tough – without sacrificing on too much quality in the process.

[Robert Poole, the Reason Foundation’s transportation guru, delved into this topic a bit more as it relates to the Federal government’s budget sequester during a recent speech – especially how more usage of privatization could help in the transportation arena.]

This study – based on spending and performance data submitted by the state highway agencies to the federal government – found that the U.S. roadway system’s overall condition improved dramatically from 2008 to 2009, with 6 out of 7 key indicators showing improvement, including large gains in rural interstate and urban interstate condition, and a reduction in the fatality rate. Only rural arterial condition worsened slightly, but poor mileage is still only a fraction of 1%, according to the group’s figures.

And those improvements occurred despite a slight reduction in per-mile expenditures, the group said, for though overall expenditures for state-owned roads increased about 18.8% since 2005, they decreased slightly – some 0.6% – between 2008 and 2009, largely due to the “Great Recession.”

On top of that, The Reason Foundation’s researchers also discerned that states became more cost-efficient with their money in 2009 as administrative costs dropped about 14% percent, with money shifted to capital and bridge expenditures (up 3.%) and maintenance expenditures (up 11%).

Yet the group stressed that beginning in late 2008 and continuing into 2009 and 2010, federal stimulus funding may have altered that rosy cost-efficiency picture quite a bit as stimulus contributed an additional 22% to state highway funding resources.

Here are some other findings from the Reason Foundation’s annual report:

  • North Dakota continued to lead the cost-effectiveness ratings, followed by Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana. But some large states—notably Missouri, Texas and Georgia—were also top-12 performers. At the bottom: Alaska, Rhode Island, Hawaii, California and New Jersey.
  • Almost two-thirds of the poor-condition rural interstate mileage is in just five states: California, Alaska, Minnesota, New York and Colorado.
  • Over half (52.7%) of the poor-condition urban interstate mileage is in just five states: California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Texas.
  • Two states (Alaska and Rhode Island) reported more than 10% of their rural primary mileage to be in poor condition.
  • Four states (California, Minnesota, Maryland and Connecticut) reported more than two-thirds of their urban interstates congested.
  • Although bridge conditions are steadily improving, 20 states report more than one-quarter of their bridges are deficient, with one state (Rhode Island) reporting more than 50% of its bridges deficient. For 2010, 20 states again report more than one-quarter of their bridges are deficient, but none with more than 50%.
  • Most states are improving their fatality rates. One state (Montana) reports a fatality rate greater than 2.0 per 100 million vehicle-miles and nine other states report a rate greater than 1.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles. For 2010, nine states report a fatality rate greater than 1.5 with no states reporting a rate above 2.0.
  • Five states (Pennsylvania, Arkansas, West Virginia, Washington and Virginia) report more than one-quarter of their rural primary mileage with narrow lanes.
  • A widening gap seems to be emerging between most states that are making progress and a few states that are finding it difficult to improve. There is also increasing evidence that higher-level road systems (Interstates, other freeways and principal arterials) are in better shape than lower-level road systems, particularly local roads.

The real interesting question is how such trend lines have shifted over the last four years and whether state highway agencies are continuing to focus on efficiency improvement efforts. We’ll get a glimpse of that one way or the other in next year’s report.

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