President Barack Obama's new infrastructure plan calls for spending $40 billion on "urgent upgrades." But a new Reason Foundation report examining 20 years of state highway data finds the condition of America's state-controlled roads has improved in seven key areas including deficient bridges and pavement condition.
All 50 states lowered their highway fatality rates from 1989 to 2008 and 40 states reduced their deficient bridges during that time. Nationwide, the number of deficient bridges in the country fell from 37.8 percent of all bridges in 1989 to 23.7 percent in 2008.
The Reason Foundation study tracks spending per mile on state-owned roads and measures road performance in seven categories: miles of urban Interstate highways in poor pavement condition, miles of rural Interstates in poor condition, congestion on urban Interstates, deficient bridges, highway fatalities, rural primary roads in poor condition and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow.
In the 20 years examined, 11 states (North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Florida) made progress in all seven categories and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics.
California was the only state that failed to improve in at least three areas, making strides only in deficient bridges and fatalities. Five states - New York, Hawaii, Utah, Vermont and Mississippi - progressed in just three categories.
The Reason Foundation study finds the amount of state-controlled road mileage increased by just .6 percent from 1989 to 2008. However, spending per mile on state-administered roads grew by 60 percent, adjusted for inflation, during that time. Texas and Florida led the growth in spending, with Texas increasing its per mile spending by 174.5 percent and Florida raising its spending by 149.6 percent, adjusted for inflation.
The percentage of urban Interstates with poor pavement condition dropped slightly from 6.6 percent in 1989 to 5.4 percent in 2008. Two states, Nevada and Missouri made remarkable turnarounds. In 1989, nearly half of their urban Interstates were in poor condition, but by 2008 less than 2 percent were in poor condition.
The percentage of rural Interstates rated in poor condition was reduced by over two-thirds, from 6.60 percent in 1989 to 1.93 percent in 2008. However, almost all of the improvements came before 1999 and two states reported rural conditions worsening by more than five percentage points: New York and California.
"There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren't crumbling," said David Hartgen, lead author of the Reason Foundation report and emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape. The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good."
The report compiles data from a variety of sources, primarily from information the states themselves reported to the federal government from 1989 through 2008. The full report is here and state-by-state summaries are here. Complete data for the year 2009 will soon be available.
Spending on State-Controlled Highways
Spending on state-controlled highways increased 177 percent from $52,000 per mile in 1989 to $145,000 per mile in 2008 (in nominal dollars). Adjusted for inflation, spending per mile on state-controlled Interstates grew by 60 percent.