RALEIGH — The federal US highway program passed in 1998 has resulted in a substantial improvement in overall road conditions but at considerable cost, according to a report released today by the John Locke Foundation that also shows how North Carolina’s highway conditions have changed in recent years and compare with those of other states.
Between 1998 and 2003 annual expenditures on state-owned highways rose about 39 percent, from $66.4 billion to $91.5 billion, or twice as fast as highway-construction prices. But road conditions also improved substantially, according to the report’s author, Dr. David T. Hartgen of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
North Carolina’s highways also showed some improvements, Hartgen found, but primarily in the late 1990s. Since 2000, the state has experiencing worsening conditions and congestion. Its national ranking of 36th in highway cost-effectiveness in 2003 represents a major drop from its ranking of 8th in the late 1980s.
At the national level, the highway system administered by the states improved sharply on six of seven key indicators of performance from 1998 to 2003, according to the new study. Only one indicator, urban interstate congestion, worsened.
The most spectacular gains in performance were in rural areas: the share of rural interstates and rural primary roads in poor condition was cut by nearly half, the share with narrow lanes fell 10 percent, and the share of bridges rated deficient improved by 12 percent.
In North Carolina, the percentage of rural interstates in poor condition dropped to 7.8 percent in 2003, down from 13.4 percent in 1998. Other roadways also showed improvement: the percentage of urban interstates rated poor fell from 15.9 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2003 . Rural primary roads also showed a slight decline in poor conditions. However, the improvements in North Carolina occurred earlier in the period, so the five-year trend masked a worsening of highway conditions in the state since 2000.
Nationally, urban interstate condition improved by just 12 percent, and urban interstate congestion worsened by 13 percent.
Progress has also slowed to a crawl in the last several years. Of seven condition indicators, six improved marginally or held steady between 2002 and 2003. Only one measure (rural primary road condition) worsened. Total expenditures rose 5 percent from 2002 to 2003.
Study provides comparative data, national rankings
Hartgen’s 14th annual study tracks the performance of the state-owned road systems from 1984 to 2003. Twelve indicators — covering the states’ revenues, expenditures, pavement and bridge conditions, urban congestion, accident rates, and narrow lanes on major rural roads — constitute each state’s overall rating.
The study is based on comparative spending and performance data submitted annually to the federal government by the state highway agencies. Each state’s cost-effectiveness rating is then computed as the average of its performance to the national averages.
The condition and performance of highways varies widely across the nation, the study also found. Across the states the share of poor-rated urban interstate ranges from zero to 31 percent, the share of deficient bridges ranges from 5 percent to 60 percent, and the share of urban interstates in poor condition ranges from zero to over 84 percent.
Several states made remarkable progress over the period from 1998 to 2003. New Mexico improved its national rank in highway cost-effectiveness from 31st to 5th and Minnesota saw its ranking fall from 32nd to 14th. On the other hand, Missouri slipped from 14th to 34th, and Maine slipped from 12th to 27th.
North Carolina’s ranking of 36th in 2003 was a slight decline from its ranking of 35th in 1998. Over the longer term, however, the state’s highways have deteriorated significantly in national comparisons. As recently as the late 1980s, North Carolina ranked 8th in the country in highway cost-effectiveness.
Hartgen lauded the nation’s overall progress during the TEA-21 years. “Congress and the States should be rightly proud of the progress to date,” he said.
But he expressed concern about the slow recent progress. “We have the best highway system in the world, but progress is becoming more difficult,” Hartgen said. “Will we leave our children a better road system, or a worse one?”
He urged Congress to reauthorize the highway program but to set national highway performance goals and provide the means to achieve them. “It’s not just more dollars. We must also select the best projects,” he said.
The full report is available for download at the JLF website. Call Dr. David Hartgen at 704-687-4308 for more information about his 14th annual national ranking of state highway performance.