If you think the road under your tires is in bad shape, you're not alone — and you're not imagining things, either. In fact, 25% of the urban roads most medium-duty fleets operate on are in “unacceptable” condition, with 43% rating “acceptable” in ride quality, according to an FHWA analysis. In addition, the overall quality of urban roads may continue to decline as the still-sluggish U.S. economy puts restraints on the funding needed to keep them in good shape.
Frank Moretti, director of policy and research for The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research group that translates reams of government data on road and highway trends into something the average person (like me) can understand, put it this way: “We're concerned because state and local governments are responding to their fiscal problems in part by cutting road maintenance funding. And federal funding for roads has reached a plateau over the last few years. If funding remains at the current level, we expect road conditions to get worse over time.”
Moretti also points out that the cost of bringing roads back into good condition after they've fallen into disrepair is exorbitant compared to what would have been spent on regular maintenance in the first place.
He's concerned that history could repeat itself: 20 years ago, funding was cut and roads fell into disrepair.
And it's not hard to see why. State governments are facing $100 billion worth of deficits this year and next, with California still struggling to close a $38 billion hole in its budget. As a result of all this red ink, many state legislatures are looking to cut transportation funds as a way to balance their budgets. In fact, a recent survey found that 61% of state legislators are eyeing transportation cuts as a way to balance their budgets.
At the federal level, road maintenance is also under-funded. A DOT study found that improving the physical condition and performance of urban roadways would require a 49% increase in annual funding, from $13.6 billion to $20.2 billion annually.
In short, this means truckers could feel the impact of poor road conditions for some time to come, largely because they are on the road more often than anyone else. While overall travel on urban roads increased by 30% between 1991 and 2001, travel by large commercial trucks increased by 46% over the same time period, according to TRIP. Vehicle travel is projected to increase by 42% by 2020, while travel by heavy trucks is projected to increase by 49%.
Another issue is that driving on roads that are in bad shape increases vehicle maintenance costs. TRIP found that, on average, motorists in the nation's major urban regions are paying $396 annually per driver in extra vehicle operating costs to use roads in need of repair. And in the 10 cities with the worst roads, the costs are even higher. The annual price motorists pay in Los Angeles is an extra $706; in Baltimore, $612; and in Oklahoma City, $578.
Although it's true that trucks are built a lot tougher than the average car, they've also got to last longer and operate with minimum downtime in order to generate profits. According to a recent analysis by Eaton Corp., the life cycle of the average passenger car is 100,000 to 125,000 miles, while medium-duty trucks are expected to last 250,000 to 300,000 miles, and Class 8 vehicles one-million miles or more.
Driving on bad roads will add cost to trucking operations in terms of extra equipment maintenance. We just don't know how much. In this environment of high insurance premiums, high fuel costs, and sluggish freight volume, the last thing we need to do is add another expense to the bottom line.