Freeman

FEATURE

The Myth of Crumbling Highways

APRIL 01, 2013 by DAVID HARTGEN

Crumbling infrastructure has a direct impact on our personal and economic health, and the nation’s infrastructure crisis is endangering our future prosperity.

—D. Wayne Klotz, former president of the Society of Civil Engineers

Ah, spring. The snow melts and orange barrels return to the nation’s roads. We hear the usual calls for repairs of “crumbling infrastructure.” Authors of several national studies cite overwhelming needs. President Obama calls for fixing structurally deficient bridges. There are tales of woe in nearly all of these plaintive accounts of America’s highways, and most are used to justify yet more government stimulus spending.

So we decided to look.

Far from crumbling highways, our new Reason Foundation report finds that America’s state-owned highways have actually improved on key measures of road performance. There’s no doubt state governments can do better. In many ways, they’re inefficient, and state transportation dollars are a trough for cronies. But the crumbling infrastructure meme is just a myth.

The Reason study tracks seven measures: urban and rural interstate condition, deficient bridges, congestion, fatalities, rural primary road condition, and narrow rural roads. We compile data from the states’ reports to the federal government from 1989 through 2008 (the last year available). We also track spending and compare each state with national averages. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the U.S. highway system actually improved on all seven measures over the last two decades: 

  • The percentage of rural interstates rated “poor” declined by two-thirds, from 6.6 percent to 1.9 percent. 
  • Urban interstates with poor pavement dropped from 6.6 percent to 5.4 percent. 
  • Rural primary poor pavement improved from 2.8 percent to 0.5 percent. 
  • Deficient bridges improved from 37.8 percent to 23.7 percent. 
  • Fatality rates improved from 2.16 to 1.25 per 100 million miles driven. 

Even urban interstate congestion declined, from 52.6 percent to 48.6 percent, although some of that may be recession-related. During the same period, expenditures for state-owned highways increased by more than 181 percent. Spending per mile increased 177 percent in nominal terms and 60 percent adjusted for inflation.   

Most states saw substantial improvements. 

All 50 states lowered their highway fatality rates between 1989 and 2008, saving about 150,000 lives. New Mexico, Nevada, and Mississippi saw the biggest decreases in fatality rates. Even if you don’t like the idea of government funding road construction, this fact should be celebrated.

Overall, 40 states reduced their number of deficient bridges from 1989 to 2008. In 1989, over half of Mississippi’s bridges were deficient, but by 2008 only 24.7 percent were rated deficient. Nebraska went from 55.1 percent deficient to 23.6 percent deficient. The numbers rose in 10 states: Hawaii, Alaska, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Ohio, South Carolina, and Oregon. 

Thirty-seven states improved the condition of rural interstates, but that progress was made mostly in the 1990s and has slowed since then. Five states (Missouri, Rhode Island, Idaho, Nevada, and Wisconsin) reduced their percentage of poor rural interstates from over 20 percent to near zero. But two states, New York and California, reported rural interstate condition worsening by more than five percentage points. 

Twenty-seven states improved the condition of urban interstates—indeed, Nevada and Missouri made remarkable turnarounds. In 1989, 47.8 percent of Nevada’s urban interstates were in poor condition, but by 2008, it was just 1.6 percent. Missouri’s urban interstate mileage in poor condition decreased from 46.7 percent in 1989 to 1.3 percent in 2008. 

Seven states, however, reported more than 10 percent of their urban interstates in poor condition in 2008. A quarter of Hawaii’s interstates rated poor. In 1989, just 4.1 percent of California’s urban interstates were in poor condition, but by 2008 that number had ballooned to 24.7 percent. Vermont went from 2.9 percent of urban interstates in poor condition in 1989 to 17.5 percent in 2008. New Jersey, Oklahoma, New York, and Louisiana also reported more than 10 percent of urban interstates in poor condition in 2008. 

Overall, twenty-nine states reduced urban interstate congestion between 1989 and 2008. Six states—Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina—reported improvements greater than 20 percentage points. But 18 states reported a worsening of urban interstate congestion. The greatest increase in congestion, 36.2 percentage points, was in Minnesota.

Overall, 11 states—North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Florida—improved on all seven performance measures. Eleven more improved on six measures and 15 improved on five measures. So, 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics. 

In another surprising finding, the study notes road spending seems to be only loosely related to performance. 

Of the 22 states that improved on six or seven measures, only one (Florida) spent more than the U.S. average per mile, and several large states (notably Virginia, Missouri, Oregon, Minnesota, and Texas) spent less than half the national average. The study suggests a widening gap between most states making progress and a few spending much more but still performing poorly. It also suggests that the higher road systems, particularly the interstates, are performing better than lower-level systems that are locally owned. 

So, if resources are not the problem, what is? 

Some of the poor performers have older systems, lots of traffic, and hard winters, but so do some good performers. More likely, the cause is high unit costs—policies that push funds to low-priority projects and “ribbon cuts,” draw attention away from maintenance, and use available revenues inefficiently. 

So there are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren’t crumbling. The overall condition of most state-owned road systems is actually getting better, and you could make a case that they have never been in better shape. The key is to target spending where it will do the most good. If your state is not on our “Top 22” list or is spending more than the U.S. average, ask why. 

David T. Hartgen is Emeritus Professor of Transportation at UNC Charlotte, president of The Hartgen Group, and adjunct scholar at the Reason Foundation. This study was sponsored by the Reason Foundation and is available at www.reason.org.

ABOUT

DAVID HARTGEN

David T. Hartgen is Emeritus Professor of Transportation at UNC Charlotte, President of The Hartgen Group and Adjunct Scholar at the Reason Foundation. This study was sponsored by the Reason Foundation and can be read at their website, www.reason.org.

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