Keystone drama

| December 12, 2008

Pennsylvania continues to impress Overdrive’s Worst Road respondents with an improved I-80. Will tolls be the price to pay to finish the massive job?

A perennial Worst Road contender in Overdrive’s annual Highway Report Card survey is like the black sheep of the family who gets his act together only to stab you in the back. We’re talking about I-80 in Pennsylvania, improved but still struggling – and back in the spotlight, as the commonwealth attempts to toll the road as part of a federal pilot program for tolling existing interstates.

“Tolls on I-80 are a big problem,” says Ohio owner-operator Charles Harrell, leased to Greentree Transportation, who named I-80 in Pennsylvania as the nation’s most improved highway. “They’re improving it with our tax dollars and turning around and charging you again for the privilege.”

By lauding I-80 for several years now – ranking it second this year for Most Improved, for example – Overdrive readers seem to support the contention of toll opponents that the road doesn’t qualify for tolling under federal law because it’s not in bad enough shape.

Independent owner-operator Jon Phillips voted Pennsylvania’s I-80 the best road in the nation. “As far as traveling and rest stops, it is the best,” he says. Interstates elsewhere, such as West Virginia, have a scarcity of truck stops close to the exits, but I-80′s peppered with them, which makes the haul easier, he says.

But I-80 also tied this year for second worst, showing that however much progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go. And Pennsylvania is the all-time worst offender in the Overdrive survey, topping the Worst Roads category for 12 of the survey’s 17 years.

For the second year in a row, though, the Keystone State placed second behind Louisiana, which still is suffering the damage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Act 44, which would toll I-80, made its way through the Pennsylvania Legislature in July. Gov. Edward Rendell and the state Turnpike Commission say Act 44 is the best way to close the $1.7 billion yearly funding gap for transport infrastructure that Rendell’s bipartisan Transportation Funding and Reform Commission identified last year.

I-80 isn’t the Pennsylvania’s only construction problem, of course. Since the Minneapolis I-35W bridge disaster in August, Pennsylvania’s structurally deficient bridges have been the focus of a statewide “rallying cry,” says Jeff Kitsko, operator of PAHighways.com, a website devoted to the state’s major roadways. Pennsylvania has the largest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation, says Richard Kilpatrick, press secretary for the state Department of Transportation.

I-80 alone is an annual $80 million drain on PennDOT’s budget, though PennDOT’s 2005 study of the tolling issue concluded this wasn’t a disproportionate amount for upkeep. In fact, says Barry Schoch of Philadelphia engineering firm McCormick Taylor, project coordinator for the Turnpike’s I-80 toll conversion, “we’d need more like $135 million yearly to keep pace” with what he deems is really needed to keep the road viable.

Tolling the interstate would take it out of Pennsylvania’s annual budget wrangles, Schoch says. “We’d be able to accelerate a lot of the improvements and make sure the work they’ve done already gets finished and lasts.”

The truck tolls would start out around $100 for the entire 311 miles, Schoch says, making high-toll hauls of both major east-west lanes through Pennsylvania – the other being I-76, a.k.a. the turnpike.

I-80 runs through the district of U.S. Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., a toll opponent who says the 2005 study stated “all this would be too costly, and the tolls would be too high, the diversion of traffic and business would be too great.” The bipartisan commission’s 2006 final report also recommended the significant streamlining of PennDOT’s administrative systems, particularly with regard to mass transit, before embarking on any new funding scheme – “And of course they didn’t do that,” Peterson says.

Peterson co-sponsored an amendment to an early version of the transportation appropriations bill for fiscal 2008 that forbids any federal funds to go toward tolling I-80. At a toll opposition rally Sept. 24 in Harrisburg, Peterson was joined by representatives from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and truck stop organization NATSO.

If I-80 can’t be tolled, the governor will fall back on his previous plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private operator to offload maintenance expenses, Kilpatrick says. Other options considered by the bipartisan commission, Kilpatrick says, included “the equivalent of a 12.5-cent-a-gallon increase in the oil company franchise tax,” which would hit fuel wholesalers directly and fuel buyers indirectly, “and increases in vehicle registration and driver’s license fees.”

Pennsylvania is not the only guest at the national toll party. Another is Texas, perennially lauded by Overdrive readers as having the best roads in the country. This year is no different; Texas ranks first in more superlative categories than any other state.

You’d think Texas was swimming in well allocated fuel-tax cash, but the state also is quite open about its mammoth toll plans. TxDOT’s “Forward Momentum” report to the 110th Congress advocates significant expansion of state tolling authority as a means of reducing congestion and further funding roads. The Trans-Texas Corridor highway-network project, despite ever-growing opposition from local legislative forces, is becoming a reality, with its I-35-parallel component well into environmental impact stages – it’s been conceived as a network of mostly tolled highways. Peterson’s Capitol Hill counterpart on the other side of the Rotunda is U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who’s leading the Senate opposition to tolling existing interstates. Though Peterson’s FY 2008 appropriations amendment barring tolls isn’t in the current House transportation appropriations bill (the final combined version was still under consideration at press time), Hutchison’s remained in the Senate’s. Both Peterson and Hutchison vow to insert a ban into the 2009 highway reauthorization.

This legislative jockeying is the outgrowth of a crisis long in the making. Fuel-tax revenue is not keeping up with the price of highway construction and maintenance, and improvements are not keeping up with traffic. Fuel prices have risen dramatically in recent years, yet the federal fuel tax has remained stagnant since 1994. The same is true of many state fuel taxes, including Louisiana’s.

“The fact that Louisiana has once again been voted as having substandard interstates is not much of a big surprise,” says Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Interstates make up 1.5 percent of the state’s roads but carry 25 percent of its traffic, he says.

I-10 is bad, but not so long ago I-20 in Louisiana was even worse, says independent owner-operator Leslie Whiddon. “I’d see a lot of vans buckling and broken down there,” he says.

The 190-mile segment of I-20 that cuts across the northern part of the state tied for seventh worst in the country. In a repeat of last year, Louisiana’s 274-mile segment of I-10 was named the worst. Like Pennsylvania’s I-80, Louisiana’s I-10 long has placed in the survey’s top five for Worst Segment.

I-10′s Twin Spans over Lake Pontchartrain between Slidell and New Orleans remain closed to full loads, and New Orleans-bound traffic frequently is tied up by almost daily inspections and maintenance on the westbound span.

“We’re making terrific progress on the replacement bridge,” says Lambert of the $800 million, 5.5-mile project. “We are shooting to have part of it online before the hurricane season begins in 2009.” Reconstruction of perhaps the roughest segment of I-10, a 10-mile section near Lake Charles, continues as well, at a price tag of $36 million.

During the last legislative session, the state appropriated a one-time $650 million above the dedicated fuel tax funding, just to cope. “We’re going to spend every bit of it this year,” Lambert says. “The problem is, come July 1, 2008, we’re back where we began.”

The decline in the purchasing power of federal revenue is hitting every state. After taking 28 years to double by 2003, the Producer Price Index for federal-aid highway construction has risen much faster – almost 50 percent since 2003.

But fund diversions and tolls aren’t the only routes to better roads. Last year’s Worst Roads success story was Arkansas, which changed its pay-as-you-go funding to a debt-financed model that allowed more immediate improvements. The state combined that with a 4-cent diesel tax increase, and this year Arkansas’ I-40 is No. 1 on the most-improved list, with its I-30 in a tie for third. (As with other long-embattled segments on which opinions range widely, Arkansas’ I-40 still is in the Worst Roads top five, too.)

A significant number (36 percent) of truckers favor some sort of fuel-tax increase to improve and expand the highway system, a recent eTrucker.com poll suggests. The American Trucking Associations’ research arm recommends a gradual 20-cent hike in its 2007 “Defining the Legacy for Users” report. As the furor over I-80 in Pennsylvania suggests, truckers might well have to settle for higher taxes or more tolls – or both.

While many truckers are known for complaining about roads, owner-operator Whiddon found that a compliment from a truck driver can go a long way. Years ago, before the International Fuel Tax Agreement took effect, he sent his payment to South Carolina with a $50 late fee added. But he also attached a note. “I said I didn’t mind paying the fee because their roads are so good,” Whiddon says. “They tore up my check.”


Tennessee flying high
The more than 450 miles of I-40 that span Tennessee from the Appalachians to the Mississippi have for the second year in a row topped the Best Road list in Overdrive’s Highway Report Card survey. Here pictured just outside Nashville, the road has been a big part of the state’s overall ranking of third for the past few years.

How do they do it? It’s all about service, say TDOT officials. Chief Engineer Paul Degges references an approach to maintenance that leaves no patch of asphalt unexamined while keeping aware of the tie-ups that construction projects can leave on the system.

“It’s not a fluke,” Degges says. “We make sure that we maintain the riding surface of the road. We don’t let water infiltration get a foothold to where it affects ride so much. And professional drivers want to have not only a good-condition road. We’re looking at our overall highway network, how all the stand-alone projects interfere with other projects across the state.”

Tennessee is feeling the pinch from rising construction costs and the pressure of congestion. But based on user requests, Degges says, it has decided to maintain the current high level of road quality and service in lieu of a great deal of expansion. “We have a customer-oriented approach,” says Degges, “and certainly professional drivers are our customers.”


Points of comparison
The states in the Overdrive survey’s top five don’t show up among the 10 worst state transportation systems designated by the pro-toll-road Reason Foundation.

The self-described libertarian group ranks states in its annual “Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems,” which is not a survey but an analysis of the quality of a state’s roads – beyond just interstates – en route to a final determination of the state DOT’s efficiency and results, a kind of “bang for the buck” approach. Among the Reason Foundation’s 10 worst, three show up in the Overdrive top 10: New Jersey, New York and Michigan.

A worst roads list mined from 2004 Federal Highway Administration data ranks states with the largest percentage of total mileage reported as 171 or higher on the International Roughness Index. Five of the Overdrive top 10 show up here: Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Michigan.

WORST STATE TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS

  1. New Jersey

  2. Alaska
  3. New York
  4. Rhode Island
  5. Hawaii
  6. Massachusetts
  7. California
  8. Alabama
  9. Michigan
  10. Florida

STATES WITH ROUGHEST ROADS

  1. New Jersey

  2. Massachusetts
  3. Hawaii
  4. Rhode Island
  5. New York
  6. Alaska
  7. Louisiana
  8. Illinois
  9. Michigan
  10. Nebraska

Even with heavy tolls, Oklahoma roads lag
Oklahoma jumped to third place for Worst Roads in Overdrive’s survey this year. The state’s 331-mile I-40 segment tied for second with I-80 in Pennsylvania as the worst segment in the country.

Intermodal hauler Roger Knox, leased to Rhino Transportation, says he’s seen – or, rather, felt – intense washboarding throughout the state, but particularly on U.S. 75 and U.S. 69 from north Texas to Tulsa.

“I-40 from Oklahoma City to Fort Smith is just terrible,” he says. “It shakes your truck so bad.” He finds himself regularly tightening exhaust brackets and other fittings after traversing the state’s roads.

Oklahoma ranks second nationwide in the high percentage of fuel-tax revenue (almost 24 percent) diverted to purposes other than highway building, according to the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.

Oklahoma also has the second-highest toll-road mileage of any state, but it’s still feeling the hurt from increased congestion and increased highway-construction prices, as Gary Ridley, director of the state Department of Transportation, recently told legislators at the state capitol.

States must get involved at the federal level to push for more money from the tax-supported Highway Trust Fund, Ridley said, because tolls and public-private partnerships are not “the silver bullet that will solve everything.”


2007 HIGHWAY REPORT CARD
Worst Roads

  1. Louisiana

  2. Pennsylvania
  3. Oklahoma
  4. California
  5. Arkansas

Best Roads

  1. Texas

  2. Florida
  3. Tennessee
  4. Virginia
  5. Ohio

Worst Segment

  1. I-10 Louisiana

  2. (tie) I-40 Oklahoma and I-80 Pennsylvania
  3. (tie) I-40 Oklahoma and I-80 Pennsylvania
  4. I-40 Arkansas
  5. I-5 California

Best Segment

  1. I-40 Tennessee

  2. I-75 Florida
  3. I-10 Texas
  4. I-81 Virginia
  5. I-80 Ohio

Most Improved Segment

  1. I-40 Arkansas

  2. I-80 Pennsylvania
  3. (tie) I-30 Arkansas and I-10 Louisiana
  4. (tie) I-30 Arkansas and I-10 Louisiana
  5. (tie) I-75 Georgia and I-44 Missouri
  6. (tie) I-75 Georgia and I-44 Missouri

Least Available Overnight Parking

  1. New Jersey

  2. California
  3. Connecticut
  4. Massachusetts
  5. Virginia

Most Available Overnight Parking

  1. Texas

  2. Ohio
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. Wyoming
  5. Florida

Worst Rest Stops

  1. Texas

  2. California
  3. New Jersey
  4. (tie) Oklahoma and Arkansas
  5. (tie) Oklahoma and Arkansas

Best Rest Stops

  1. Florida

  2. Texas
  3. Ohio
  4. Georgia
  5. Louisiana

Worst Truck Stops

  1. New Jersey

  2. California
  3. Louisiana
  4. Connecticut
  5. Illinois

Best Truck Stops

  1. Texas

  2. Louisiana
  3. Ohio
  4. (tie) Pennsylvania and Missouri
  5. (tie) Pennsylvania and Missouri

Worst Four-Wheeler Drivers

  1. New York

  2. California
  3. Illinois
  4. Florida
  5. Texas

Best Four-Wheeler Drivers

  1. Texas

  2. California
  3. (tie) Wyoming and Tennessee
  4. (tie) Wyoming and Tennessee
  5. Minnesota

Toughest Truck Inspections and Law Enforcement

  1. California

  2. Ohio
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. Iowa
  5. Connecticut

Weakest Truck Inspections and Law Enforcement

  1. Alabama

  2. Texas
  3. Oklahoma
  4. West Virginia
  5. South Carolina

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