RALEIGH – North Carolina should fund repairs of its deteriorating state highways not with new taxes but by ending wasteful road projects, according to a comprehensive new report from the John Locke Foundation on highway expenditures and priorities.
The study reviewed 349 major road projects constructed between 1990 and 2003. About $2.5 billion was spent on projects of questionable value, concluded study author David T. Hartgen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. If that money had been used for road repairs instead, the state’s highway maintenance budget could have been 40 percent higher without raising taxes, he found.
Major road projects include freeway and arterial widenings, new freeways and arterials, and new exits and climbing lanes. These projects cost about $7.3 billion, about 1/3 of the state’s highway program of $20.5 billion since 1990. These expenditures increased 206 percent over 13 years.
On average, the major highway projects cost about 2.7 cents per vehicle-mile, but they varied widely in effectiveness. Some — such as climbing lanes, urban arterial widenings and urban freeway widenings — were generally worthwhile, Hartgen found. But others — new exits on rural freeways, new rural 4-lane arterials and some new freeways — were of questionable worth.
If the projects costing more than 5.3 cents per vehicle-mile (a standard roughly two times the state average) had been delayed or deleted, about $2.5 billion would have been saved, he said.
“For just nine percent of the capital budget, the state’s deteriorating road conditions could have been reversed”, Hartgen said. “Essentially, we fiddled while Rome burned.”
The study showed that cost-effective and cost-ineffective projects were constructed all over the state. Neither was concentrated in rural, urban, eastern, western or other locations. Among the cost-effective projects were:
• A 1998 widening of a 1.6-mile section of US 76 in Wilmington for $600,000, serving 25,000 vehicles a day.
• Widening in 2000 of a 17.5-mile section of I-85 in Gaston County from 4 to 6 lanes for $49.1 million, serving 75,000 vehicles a day.
• Climbing lanes on NC 107 in Jackson and Transylvania counties, at $4 million, serving 6,600 vehicles a day.
Examples of cost-ineffective projects included:
• A new exit and frontage road on I-40 at Newfound Road in Haywood County, constructed in 1995 for $4.9 million to serve just 500 vehicles per day.
• A new exit on US 64 in Edgecombe County at SR 1207, constructed in 1998 for $7.7 million, serving just 800 vehicles per day.
• A 2.1-mile widening of US 19/74 in Swain County from NC 28 to the Little Tennessee River, completed in 1992 for $21.7 million, serving 5400 vehicles per day.
“We need to spend our highway dollars more wisely, not ask our taxpayers for more of their money,” Hartgen said. “North Carolina no longer has the luxury of distributing road funds without regard to need.”
The study also found that the state’s focus on major projects diverted attention and money away from repair needs, allowing the system to deteriorate even as new roads were added. During the 1990s, the state’s roads worsened from 8th best nationwide to 36th according to Hartgen’s analysis. By 2002, the state’s rural interstates were rated 44th nationwide, urban interstates 42nd, and rural arterials 45th, the study found.
The study concluded that the benefits of highway projects could be substantially improved if they were selected according to their cost-effectiveness. The study calls for focusing the state’s highway program more on maintenance needs funded by savings from better selection of major projects according to cost-effectiveness rather than the geographic criteria presently used. It calls on the General Assembly to increase long-term highway maintenance funding by about 40 percent.
Other recommendations include 1) constraining the capital program to needed and affordable projects; 2) reviewing all highway fund diversions and non-pavement expenditures so that revenues from highway users are devoted to highway purposes; 3) exploring innovative financing such as tollways and infrastructure banks; 4) revising current highway funding formulas; 5) limiting major road improvements to higher road classes; and 6) applying interim measures before widening.
The new JLF policy report on North Carolina highway spending is available online here. For more information, contact Dr. David Hartgen at 704-547-4308 or Dr. Roy Cordato, vice president for research, at 919-828-3876.