Last year, Harvard University graduate student Samara Barend hit a pothole on Route 17 near Monticello, NY, lost control of the wheel and suffered a concussion when her car jolted to a stop.

For the political activist and unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, the pothole plunge seemed like a heavy dose of irony. As a 19-year-old undergraduate in the mid-1990s, Barend successfully lobbied Congress to convert Route 17 into Interstate 86 in an effort to garner more federal funding to upgrade the road, relieve congestion and create thousands of jobs by having a first-class road in place to attract greater business investment.

Unfortunately, like many other highways and bridges in the U. S., Route 17/I-86 remains in poor condition. The sad fact is that there is not enough money earmarked to maintain — let alone improve — our nation's roads.

Just to keep pace, our roads and bridges this year would require $176.4 billion, $38 billion more than is available nationwide, according to government and private data analyzed by Cambridge Systematics for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“These figures include capital investment, operating expenses and administrative costs so they will be higher than [government] estimates that only include capital investment,” says Gary Maring, who led the report team.

To actually improve roads and bridges, making driving more efficient and safer, would cost $214.4 billion, or $76.3 billion more than is available.

America's highways are rapidly deteriorating, the result of a perfect storm in the early 2000s consisting of more vehicles on the roads (especially heavy trucks), deliberate diversion of state highway funds, a contentious national highway bill several years behind schedule, and a federal Highway Trust Fund that has not kept pace with construction costs.

All of these came on top of the worst fiscal crisis to hit states in 60 years. “Every state is strapped for cash,” says Arturo Perez, transportation analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “Road spending always gets squeezed.”

ONE IN FOUR

Drive down any major metropolitan road in the country and chances are you'll hit bone-jarring patches ranging from deep potholes and uneven pavements to bumps and slipshod repairs that make traveling uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Based on data collected by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), about one in four miles of major urban and suburban roads, mainly interstates, are substandard and often unsafe.

And, according to analysis by TRIP, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization that promotes transportation policies and receives funding from parties on all sides of the issue, road conditions have worsened in recent years from 22% in 1998 to 26% in 2003, the latest year for which data is available. Overall, 34% of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and 27% of the bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Some spans are in such poor condition that large trucks are increasingly being banned over fears that they will further weaken or collapse the structures. For example, in June New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority closed I-678 over the Whitestone Bridge connecting the Bronx and Queens to large trucks, even though it would increase the cost of delivering everyday items such as food, heating oil, gasoline and construction materials.

“It's sad that in order to keep these bridges sound, they have to disrupt the entire economy of downstate [trucks were partly banned on the nearby Throgs Neck Bridge, too],” said State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky from neighboring Westchester County.

Only recently have government officials and business leaders begun to articulate the crucial connection between the nation's transportation infrastructure and economic well-being. Most of us intuitively know that better roads are good for business, but new economic modeling is driving home the numbers. Trucks deliver more than 85% of the nation's $7-trillion worth of commodities, and every dollar spent on highways yields $5.40 in economic benefits because of fewer traffic delays, improved safety and reduced vehicle operating costs, according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

On the flip side, driving on deficient roads costs U.S. drivers nearly $54 billion for vehicle repairs and related operating costs. If a passenger car is damaged from hitting a pothole too hard, the owner could end up with a repair bill that includes alignment ($40 to $75), metal wheel replacement ($75 to $200), and tire replacement ($100 to $200). Similar replacements on trucks could cost at least three, four or more times these amounts.

Poor roads also cause traffic congestion, and economists are just starting to appreciate these effects, too. Traffic jams cost Americans $63.2 billion annually in wasted time and fuel costs, based on DOT estimates.

An accepted rule of thumb is that it costs $1.18 a minute to operate a heavy truck. A traffic tie-up not only adds to this direct operating expense, but can add premiums to retail or manufacturing costs that kick in when just-in-time deliveries are no longer just in time. In an age when trucks have become rolling warehouses, the stakes for delayed deliveries are mounting.

Americans spend an astounding 3.5-billion hours stuck in traffic every year, and much of it could be mitigated by better roads. According to traffic engineers, the worst traffic tie-ups are caused by road repair and maintenance crews trying to fix a crumbling infrastructure during rush hour instead of when the roads are less crowded.

The best solution is to totally close a road to repair it, but that puts too much pressure on already congested roads. Night repairs are second best, but cash-strapped jurisdictions often try to avoid paying higher nighttime wages.

In too many cases, roads have fallen into such disrepair that immediate and extensive repairs are necessary, despite the inconvenience and cost of working all day, especially during rush hours.

When it comes to assigning blame for our bad roads, there's enough to go around.

Highway experts disagree about what injures roads the most — increased traffic, heavy trucks, weather or poor construction — but they do agree on one thing: There's no way to build roads that last forever, and frequent maintenance is required. They also agree that when a road begins to crumble, the longer you put off repairs, the more expensive it becomes to fix it.

Depending upon the pavement material and the underlying ground strata, a moderately traveled road in a warm, dry climate can last up to ten years. Add increased traffic flows, heavy trucks, water seeping through the surface — with or without a freeze/thaw cycle — coupled with less frequent or poor maintenance, and the life cycle will be considerably less.

More frequent maintenance can extend a road's life, but cash-strapped states have deferred fixing roads during the recent economic downturn.

The problem is money. About 58% of state road building and repair funding comes from taxes on gasoline and diesel, in addition to other sources such as licensing and vehicle registration fees. Unfortunately, even as Americans drive more and spend more on fuel, the amount of money they put into funds slated for highways is not enough to keep roads in good shape. “We have more vehicle miles traveled, but states are not increasing fuel taxes to keep up with the increased costs of wear and tear,” notes NCSL's Perez.

This situation mimics conditions on the federal level. The Highway Trust Fund, which supplies the remaining 42% of state funding, is pulling in a relatively constant $30 to $35 billion annually (about 80% goes to roads; the remainder for mass transit), but construction costs are rising dramatically. By 2006, the fund's balance, or cushion, will disappear, according to a model suggested by the Congressional Budget Office, and it will operate solely on revenue generated annually. If a single downward fluctuation occurs, roads will suffer immediately.

Moreover, the omnibus highway bill that appropriates road funding to individual states from the Highway Trust Fund expired in September 2003. Congress has been forced to pass eleven stopgap measures to keep the system on life support. At presstime, the bill was still in Congress, and their inaction has held up major road projects nationwide.

What's more, the cost of highway materials rose 8.5% in 2004, versus a 12-year average of 1.8%, and is going higher, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. (ARTBA).

Asphalt, the most frequently used pavement material, rose 4% in 2004, with an expected rise of 11% this year. Much of the increase is due to the price of oil, a large component. Concrete, another widely-used pavement material, rose 8% in 2004, with a 23% jump expected for 2005.

FUND RAIDERS

Adding insult to injury, states have been raiding their highway funds to pay for day-to-day expenses, leaving even less for roads. By constitutional statute, some states, like Georgia, are not permitted to divert funds.

“Our gas tax is limited to spending on roads and bridges,” says Georgia DOT spokesperson Bert Brantley. “We try to repave every ten years, and we continually rate roads, which makes it easier to plan repair and maintenance.” According to FHWA data, Georgia's roads are often rated among the best, something Brantley also attributes to having a long paving season.

In California, however, the legislature found a loophole that has allowed it to transfer $5 billion from the transportation fund to the state's general fund since 2001. Now, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is leading a charge to close the loophole.

While the freeze/thaw cycle in northern states is tough on pavements, it may not be the primary culprit. “The real problem is water,” says transportation consultant Harry Cohen, who worked on a landmark federal report about how trucks injure roads and bridges. “You want the underlying soil to drain water away and keep the roadbed dry.”

Roads in states with lots of clay in the soil, such as Mississippi, can suffer from just as many potholes as those in northern states. They're victims of geology; not much can be done about it except ongoing maintenance, just like in colder states. Poor road construction and cracks in the pavement also leads to water damage.

One road truism is that the more you spend up front, the longer a road will last. “There's a tradeoff that all highway builders look at,” says Cohen. “If you spend more money up front, you can build a road that lasts longer, but the problem is the short-term nature of politics. There are limited budgets and political considerations when it comes to building roads and bridges.”

In other words, in the current climate, politicians are loathe to increase taxes for roads while the federal government is lowering the income tax rate. Cynical observers contend that some politicians only worry about road conditions during their tenure, and thus do the minimum upkeep.

Road damage caused by heavy trucks may be the most contentious part of the issue, as car drivers blame the big rigs for beating up roads and their owners not paying more money to fix them. The data belies this belief: Trucks and cars both pay about 80 to 90% of their total road costs. Although each group pays the same proportion, it is still short of the 100% each should be paying to keep roads in top condition.

There is no doubt, however, that heavy trucks put more stress on roads than cars do. Georgia DOT officials, for example, note that a section of Route 400 that banned trucks lasted two years longer than the section that allowed trucks. Heavily traveled roads like I-95 on the East Coast and I- 5 in the West suffer particularly high truck wear since they haul imported goods from shipping ports to population centers north and south.

TRUCKS OR NOT

In response to this evergreen complaint, officials of the American Trucking Assns. states: “Much of the expense in building roads is in the road bed, the right-of-way, and other costs that would exist with or without trucks. Adding extra layers of asphalt to accommodate heavy traffic is a relatively small expense. A highway that is well-designed to handle the type and volume of traffic anticipated and is routinely maintained should bear little extra expense due to trucks.”

It's true that only a 10% increase in thickness will enable pavement to withstand 50 to 60% more truck traffic. But this back-of-the-envelope calculation may give way as trucks become heavier and make more frequent trips. Increase a truck's weight by only 10%, and it causes 40% more wear and tear on pavements, according to Cohen and others.

Is the extra up-front cost worth it? Yes. Truck freight is expected to grow from 13.2-billion tons in 2003 to 17.4-billion tons in 2015; miles driven by all vehicles are also expected to increase. By 2009, we will have 246-million motor vehicles on America's highways, a 14% increase from 1999, and highway travel is expected to increase 40% by 2015, according to ARTBA.

“The bottom line is that roads are a total tradeoff,” says Joseph Morris, program specialist for the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Academies. “There's a financial, political and technical component, but there's a strong argument to be made that up-front spending costs less in the long run.”

As traffic congestion increases, and closures for repairs become more costly, most road experts agree that it's better to pay now rather than later.

“Over the long haul, more up-front investment in roads pays dividends,” Moretti adds. “Are politicians willing to do what it takes? That's the real question.”

Mean Streets

10 Worst City Road Systems

(Based on % of major roads and highways with substandard road conditions.)

Kansas City - 71%

San Jose - 67%

St. Louis - 66%

Los Angeles - 64%

San Francisco-Oakland - 60%

San Diego - 58%

New Orleans - 55%

Boston - 49%

Sacramento - 49%

Oklahoma City - 47%

Before cities not on the list start bragging, only three metro areas with more than 500,000 people manage to keep 75% of their major roads and highways in good condition : Atlanta, Orlando and Phoenix.

Source: “Rough Ride Ahead: Metro Areas with the Roughest Ride and Strategies to Make Our Roads SMoother,” by TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based national transportation research group.