Worst roads: Go west

| December 12, 2008

Once again, readers say Pennsylvania has the nation’s worst roads, Texas the best.

Comedian W.C. Fields said: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” According to the latest Overdrive Worst Roads survey,most truckers would rather not. On the whole, most would rather skip all of Pennsylvania.

For the second consecutive year and the fifth time in a decade, Pennsylvania leads our worst roads list. Among the chief complaints: the conditions of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-78 and I-80, and poor signage. The Turnpike, also known as I-76, is further ripped for its high tolls.

On the other hand, Texas Department of Transportation officials must be thrilled with their Highway Report Card showing. The Lone Star state again leads in best highways, most overnight parking, best roads and best truck stops.

PennDOT officials are confounded why the state that gave America Hershey bars, cheese steaks and the Declaration of Independence continues to get such a bad rap. Rich Kirkpatrick, spokesman for PennDOT, says his state spent $1.3 billion on highway and bridge projects in 2004. The budget for 2005 is at an equal pace, with $139 million going toward various I-95 projects in the Philadelphia area and $43 million slated for a reconstruction of I-80 near State College.

“We’re making progress,” Kirkpatrick says. And survey participants seem to have noticed: The much-maligned I-80 is second for most improved road and appears further down the best roads list. I-81 is fifth on the most improved list. Pennsylvania doesn’t appear among the top 3 in any “worst” category, except toughest inspections.

“If you look at the nationally recognized measures for pavement smoothness, the result does not in any way match what truckers are saying in the survey,” Kirkpatrick says. “And frankly, that has always mystified us.”

On the International Roughness Index, in which lower numbers are better, the commonwealth scored 103, just above the national median of 99, Kirkpatrick says.

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo takes issue with the state’s worst roads ranking. His agency wrapped up two major projects in the past year and is spending $2 billion – culled from a toll increase implemented in 2004 – to completely renovate I-76 from end to end, he says.

Still, Pennsylvania leaves many truckers saddle sore. Owner-operator Bernard Linkhauer says Keystone State highways “will beat and bang you around.” The Pittsburgh-area resident says repairs along I-76 amount to a Band-Aid. “It looks good, and it lasts a little while, but then it’s back to square one again,” Linkhauer says.

He also dislikes I-76 for its tolls. From the New Jersey state line to the Ohio line, Linkhauer recently paid $110.

Signage is the pet peeve of Elizabeth Vogel, a semi-retired Pennsylvanian who owns a family trucking business. Pennsylvania’s exit signs are too close to their off ramps and force unfamiliar truckers to slow too quickly, she says.

“We’re just not up to having any decent road signs,” says Vogel, who lives in the northern logging town of Emporium. You can drive on the Turnpike for miles, she says, without seeing a sign telling you where you are and how far your destination is.

New Jersey independent Zeb Gillespie calls I-80 and I-78 “some of the worst roads that
I run. It’s just the conditions. I-80 – it’s like riding on a washboard.” Gillespie says his favorite highways are in his native North Carolina.

Owner-operator Kevin Sweeney of Andover, N.J., says PennDOT has made vast improvements on I-81, but bridges along I-80 – including those in New Jersey – are roughest on his 1987 Peterbilt 359.

“You hit a bridge, and you would think you hit a car,” Sweeney says. “You’ve got to hold on to the steering wheel with both hands and hope for the best.”

Not all truckers are sore at Pennsylvania. Gerry Anderson, owner-operator of G&S Trucking of Angleton, Texas, says PennDOT roads have greatly improved during the past 20 years. “I was driving I-80 when the potholes were so big you could almost lose the front axle in it.”

Self-described road enthusiast Jeffrey Kitsko started PaHighways.com, an online guided tour and history of Pennsylvania’s roadways, partially in response to consistently negative Overdrive rankings of the Keystone State and “to dispel the notion that all of our roads are two steps from gravel,” the Pennsylvania native says.

Kitsko says PennDOT’s notoriety may stem from its debt-ridden past in the 1980s. Roads suffered when the agency faced spending 150 percent of its entire budget on decades-old bonds.

Even today, the state faces a $6 billion shortfall in highway repairs. Much of the state’s transportation funds come from state license permits and fees, revenue that doesn’t keep up with the growth of out-of-state traffic.

“If you’re a trucker, you’re going to end up in Pennsylvania at some point,” PennDOT’s Kirkpatrick says, adding that his state has the highest Interstate truck use in the Northeast.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2005 Infrastructure Report Card said 23 percent of Pennsylvania’s urban roads were congested and 46 percent of its roads were in poor or mediocre condition. That assessment is far from the worst: California has that distinction, with 60 percent of its major urban roads congested and 71 percent of its major roads in disrepair.

California ranks high on Overdrive’s worst roads list, as well. California trucker Allen Pickard calls I-5 a nightmare.

“I believe a lot of the money designated for our highways and Interstates has been funneled off,” he says.

Overdrive readers also put California on the lists of least available overnight parking and worst rest stops and say the Golden State has the toughest truck restrictions in the country. Parking in or around California’s major cities is nil, Pickard says. “If you want to grade California on trucker convenience, grade it an ‘F.'”

Owner-operator Anderson says I-44 in Missouri also deserves a failing grade. “It shakes the truck to pieces.” He says the best way to critique a road is for a team driver to try to sleep while riding on it, and I-44 has knocked him out of bed.

Lifelong Texan Judy Selzer of Wills Point disagrees with readers’ high praise of Texas highways.

“They are not keeping them up any more,” she says. I-35 to San Antonio “will tear your equipment up,” she says.

The Texas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of Trans-Texas Corridor, a $183 billion, 50-year plan to place trucks, passenger vehicles, freight railways and passenger railways in separate, parallel lanes. TexDOT spokesman Mark Cross says the state also is in the middle of a multi-year effort to revamp all its rest stops and already has installed Wi-Fi in a third of them.

Such efforts to improve trucker convenience placed Texas No. 1 in best rest stops, best truck stops and most available parking. Survey participants, however, also said Texas has the worst rest stops in the nation – a testament to how big Texas is, how many truckers make stops in the Lone Star State, and how varied their opinions are.


Readers place N.J. parking out of service
According to this year’s survey, New Jersey isn’t the place to be when it’s time to pull off for the night. Respondents say the state has the nation’s least available overnight truck parking, worst truck stops and second worst rest stops.

New Jersey resident Zeb Gillespie says of the Garden State’s truck stops: “I try to stay out of them as much as possible. They’re either too small or too expensive. You don’t feel safe at them either.”

He adds that there’s “too much going on in the parking lots,” meaning crimes such as prostitution. Gillespie blames zoning laws and a lack of available real estate for the state’s small truck stops and rest stops.

Another New Jersey owner-operator, Kevin Sweeney, agrees New Jersey’s truck stops are in horrible condition and too crime-ridden.

“There’s no place to rest except to take your life into your hands and park behind a grocery store,” he says.

New Jersey’s relatively few rest stops aren’t in great shape, either, Sweeney says, with poor parking conditions and poor service.


Among four-wheelers, aggression is all the rage
In his decades-long trucking career, Marion Spray has seen countless acts of aggressive driving and “stupidity” among four wheelers. He’s seen cars slam on their brakes in front of trucks and get nailed from behind. Spray is most irked by four-wheelers who speed up when approaching a construction zone so they can cut over at the last minute into a merging lane.

“They think they have the right of way over tractor-trailers,” says Spray, of Morrow, Ohio.

Roughly two-thirds of respondents in our 2005 Highway Report Card say road rage increased during the past year.

The worst automobile drivers are in California, according to survey results. Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Texas followed. Texas is praised for having the best automobile drivers, followed by California, Iowa and Kentucky.

Spray picks not on any particular state but on types of drivers and makes of vehicles. SUV drivers are the worst, he says; they speed but can’t stop.

Allen Pickard of the Los Angeles suburb of Glendora agrees that his state has the worst drivers. Pickard constantly sees four-wheelers make foolish choices, such as zipping across three lanes of traffic to reach an exit ramp. He blames the pressure of driving in Southern California, where morning commutes can take two hours.

Californian Christine Delano says Missouri has the worst four-wheelers. Rather than pass her truck, motorists will stay next to her, preventing her from changing lanes.

Road rage increases with traffic, says New Jersey’s Kevin Sweeney, an owner-operator who drives flatbed for Mercer. He says New York and Connecticut drivers are the worst offenders. Stuck in lower New England congestion, they fast become frustrated.

“You don’t get road rage out in the country,” he adds.


Worst Roads by State
1. Pennsylvania
2. Missouri
3. Louisiana
4. Michigan
5. California

Best Roads by State
1. Texas
2. Florida
3. Tennessee
4. Georgia, Ohio (tie)
5. Nevada, Virginia (tie)

WORST HIGHWAY
1. I-10 Louisiana
2. I-44 Missouri
3. I-95 New York

BEST HIGHWAY
1. I-75 Florida
2. I-40 Tennessee
3. I-10 Texas

MOST IMPROVED HIGHWAY
1. I-40 Arkansas
2. I-80 Pennsylvania
3. I-30 Arkansas

LEAST OVERNIGHT PARKING
1. New Jersey
2. California
3. Virginia

MOST OVERNIGHT PARKING
1. Texas
2. Indiana
3. Ohio

WORST REST STOPS
1. Texas
2. New Jersey
3. California

BEST REST STOPS
1. Texas
2. Florida
3. Indiana

WORST TRUCK STOPS
1. New Jersey
2. New York
3. Texas

BEST TRUCK STOPS
1. Texas
2. Indiana
3. Nebraska

WORST AUTOMOBILE DRIVERS
1. California
2. Illinois
3. New York

BEST AUTOMOBILE DRIVERS
1. Texas
2. California
3. Indiana

TOUGHEST TRUCK INSPECTIONS
1. California
2. Ohio
3. Pennsylvania

WEAKEST TRUCK INSPECTIONS
1. Alabama
2. Oklahoma
3. Texas

More than 300 Overdrive readers responded to the Highway Report Card survey in fall 2005. About 27 percent of respondents deliver in all 48 states, and 57 percent report 21 years or
more in the industry.

Because each ranking is based on separate questions, and because states that have a large share of truck traffic tend to get the most votes, a state such as Texas can show up on two opposing lists.

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