#103, On the mend for years, U.S. roads crumbling again

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Poor newspaper delivery, slow internet speed and increasing utility costs are constant public annoyances. But arguably at the top of the list of everyday frustrations is the worsening condition of roads.

The Reason Foundation has been reporting on the issue for nearly a quarter-century. And in its recently released 24th Annual Highway Report, the libertarian think tank based in Los Angeles reports the nation’s roads are deteriorating.

U.S. roads crumbling again after years of improvement.
U.S. roads crumbling again after years of improvement.

Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the Annual Highway Report and assistant director of transportation at Reason Foundation, is our guest this week in an abbreviated edition of The Weekly Driver Podcast.

We experienced technical difficulties in this episode, but podcast co-hosts Bruce Aldrich and James Raia discuss the new report with Feigenbaum. He explains the reasons for fluctuation in yearly results and how states react to the Reason Foundation’s determinations.

In the current report, North Dakota, Virginia, and Missouri have the best performing, most cost-efficient state highway systems. New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Hawaii have the worst.

The 24th annual report is a definitively summarized:

“After decades of incremental progress in several key highway categories, the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report published finds the nation’s highway conditions are deteriorating, especially in a group of problem-plagued states struggling to repair deficient bridges, maintain Interstate pavement and reduce urban traffic congestion.”

Feigenbaum, who has am eight-year tenure with the Reason Foundation, reports:

“In looking at the nation’s highway system as a whole, there was a decades-long trend of incremental improvement in some key categories, but the overall condition of the highway system has now worsened.

“We see some improvement on structurally deficient bridges, but pavement conditions on rural and urban highways are declining, the rise in traffic fatalities is worrying, and we aren’t making needed progress on traffic congestion in our major cities.”

The 24th Annual Highway Report, based on data that states submitted to the federal government, ranks each state’s highway system in 13 categories, including traffic fatalities, pavement condition, congestion, spending per mile and nd administrative costs, among other data.

The new report uses state-submitted highway data from 2016. It’s the most recent year with complete figures currently available. Traffic congestion and bridge data from 2017 is included in the report.

North Dakota ranks first in overall performance and cost-effectiveness rankings of state highway systems for the second straight year. North Dakota’s rural and urban Interstate pavement conditions both rank in the top 10 and the state has kept its per-mile costs down. Virginia jumps an impressive 25 spots in the rankings—from 27th overall in the previous annual report—into second-place in performance and cost-effectiveness. Missouri, Maine and Kentucky round out the top five states.

The state highway systems in New Jersey (50th), Alaska (49th), Rhode Island (48th), Hawaii (47th), Massachusetts (46th) and New York (45th) rank at the bottom of the nation in overall performance and cost-effectiveness. Despite spending more money per mile than any other state, New Jersey has the worst urban traffic congestion and among the worst urban Interstate pavement conditions in the country.

The study finds pavement conditions on both urban Interstates and rural Interstates are deteriorating, with the percentage of urban Interstate mileage in poor condition increasing in 29 of 50 states. One-third, 33 percent, of the nation’s urban Interstate mileage in poor condition is concentrated in just five states: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, and New York.

It’s not just urban Interstates with the rougher pavement, however, the Annual Highway Report also finds the percentage of rural arterial principal roads in poor condition hit the worst levels since 2000.

Similarly, the study’s three traffic fatality categories —overall, urban and rural—all show more fatalities in 2016 than in any year since 2007.

The most positive news in this year’s report is on bridges, where 39 states lowered the percentage of bridges deemed structurally deficient. Unfortunately, 18 percent or more of bridges remain structurally deficient in these five states: Iowa, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

With Americans spending an average of 35 hours a year stuck in traffic, traffic congestion levels are about the same as in the previous report. Drivers in New Jersey, New York, California, Georgia and Massachusetts experience the longest delays due to urban traffic congestion in their metro regions.

The Annual Highway Report finds states disbursed about $139 billion for state-controlled highways and arterials in 2016, a four percent decrease from approximately $145 billion spent in 2015.

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