The Reason Foundation's annual highway reports always make for interesting reading, helping us gauge how well our roadways are performing. The think tank's 19th such report provides a mixed bag of good and bad news for America's roadways on a state-by-state basis, highlighting significant success on the safety front and, unfortunately, continued failures in the area of cost control.

Based on 2008 data, the Reason Foundation's latest study determined that highway bridges are actually in their best condition as a group since 1984, with highway pavement in its best condition since 1993. Traffic congestion is at its lowest since 2000, according to the group's analysis, with fatalities down to levels not seen since the 1960s.

According to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the overall number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. decreased 9.7% to 37,261 in 2008; a decline of 3,998 fatalities that is the largest annual reduction in terms of both number and percentage since 1982. Overall, that's the lowest level of traffic fatalities since 1961, the agency said. The Reason Foundation pointed out, however, that the economic recession is partly responsible for some of those improvements as people are driving less, helping reduce traffic congestion and fatalities, while helping slow pavement deterioration.

In terms of highway "cost effectiveness," though, the record is more uneven. According to the Foundation's research, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas maintain the most cost-effective state highway systems, while Rhode Island, Alaska, California, Hawaii and New York host the least cost-effective networks. New Jersey still spends dramatically more than every other state on highways, the report found, plunking down $1.1 million per mile on state roads. The second biggest spender, Florida, spends $671,000/mi., with California laying out $545,000/mi. South Carolina, by contrast, recorded the lowest expenses, spending just $34,000/mi.

California also squanders a massive amount of transportation money that never makes it onto roads, the Reason Foundation said, spending $93,464 in administrative costs for every mile of state road. New York ($89,194), Massachusetts ($71,982), and New Jersey ($62,748) also compare poorly to states like Texas ($6,529) and Virginia ($6,370), which spend dramatically less on administrative costs.

David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and one of the report's primary authors, said the news should not come as a surprise in some respects, as states have invested a lot more money to improve pavement and bridges over the last few years. In fact, state spending on highways increased 8% from 2007 to 2008, with per-mile spending on state roads almost tripling since 1984.

"But as the states deal with large budget deficits and the recession continues, we'll have to wait and see if this progress can be continued," Hartgen said. And with state governments facing a $200 billion budget gap to cover fiscal 2011, we won't be waiting long.


Sean Kilcarr is Fleet Owner' s senior editor. He can be reached at skilcarr@fleetowner.com