Keystone drama

| December 12, 2008

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

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