‘Rougher than a corncob’

Workers pull a damaged section of the I-10 bridge from Lake Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina.

“To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.” So goes the opening of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All the King’s Men, inspired by the life and death of Louisiana’s Huey Long. The populist governor built 2,000 miles of paved roads in a state that had only 300 miles when he was elected.

Warren’s opening might do well today to describe a drive on I-10 northeast out of New Orleans – except for the “good” and “new.” Thanks largely to I-10, this year’s Overdrive Highway Report Card survey of owner-operators bestows the Worst Roads crown upon a veteran of the Top Five, the Bayou State of Louisiana.

John Clark of Bradenville, Pa., hauls produce for FST Logistics. Although he runs through Pennsylvania – the state most frequently at the head of the Worst Roads list in its 16-year history, and a close second this year – he says I-10 alone is bad enough to qualify Louisiana for the top spot. “It’s awful,” he says, citing the potholes and bumps.

Bad roads nationwide force Clark to replace his shocks every seven to 12 months. “You hit a couple good potholes, and it blows them out.”

Wayne Strother Sr. of Bunkie, La., an independent who hauls grain and produce from Texas to Georgia, decries a 35-mile stretch of I-10 around Lake Charles that he runs weekly. “It’s falling to pieces over there,” he says. “You have to run in the left lane to keep from tearing your stuff up.”

Tommy Andrews of Red Oak, Texas, an independent heavy-equipment hauler, calls I-10 “rougher than a corncob. The roads are so rough, you can tear up a brand-new truck.” He’s had the front end of his truck realigned three times this year at $163 a pop.

“If they spent as much money fixing the roads as they do building scales, they’d be all right,” says Andrews, one of the owner-operators who cited Louisiana not only for rough roads but for rough inspections.

Produce hauler Don Rausch of Dyersville, Iowa, leased to Tauke Transfer of Cascade, agrees. “You can’t hardly go across there without some kind of hassle, somebody pulling you over for something.”

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But in the voting on toughest truck inspections and law enforcement, Louisiana placed far down the list. As it has for years, California reigns as the toughest. Alabama’s enforcement ranks as the weakest. Other survey highlights:

  • Most respondents said road rage had increased over the year, as more and more vehicles battle for the same space.
  • California retained the dubious honor of having the worst automobile drivers, with New York and Illinois trading second and third spots this year.
  • Texas again had the most first-place finishes in positive categories: best drivers, best truck stops, most available overnight parking, best rest areas and, by a significant margin over Florida, best roads.

It’s no secret that Louisiana’s swampy terrain makes road building in some areas difficult. “Louisiana is soft, so getting a solid road there is really a problem,” says Lawrence Griffin of McAlester, Okla., who’s leased to Sagebrush Logistics.

“Over time, you get waves in the concrete as the loose soil shifts or sinks, and if you’re in a long wheel-base vehicle, that gets pretty bumpy,” says Mark Lambert, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. “You’ll get a bump about every 50 feet.”

The state has a $36 million project, under way since 2005, on a 10-mile section near Lake Charles that amounts to a total reconstruction, Lambert says. “We’re a little over halfway finished with it.”

A chronic problem, as everywhere, is money, Lambert says. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, construction costs have soared far above the rate of inflation, while road-building funds are actually dwindling.

“We’re facing the same thing a lot of states are facing – a declining revenue base,” Lambert says. “We base our funding on a state motor-fuel tax, based on a per-gallon charge. In Louisiana, 16 cents of the tax per gallon goes to a fund that pays for our construction and operations costs. Over a period of time, you’re not keeping up with inflation.” Louisiana’s gas tax has remained static since 1989.

Of course, Louisiana also has a more purely local problem. “I-10 has basically become the hurricane highway,” Lambert says.

I-10 in and around New Orleans suffered a major blow during Katrina in August 2005. The next month, Rita slammed the western part of the state and arguably did more road damage than Katrina. Rita submerged I-10 in places. After it passed, parts of state Highway 27, which runs along the coast, were gone.

Some emergency federal aid was quick to arrive. After Katrina, for example, working on a $31 million emergency repair contract from the Federal Highway Administration, Boh Brothers Construction of New Orleans took less than a month to re-establish two-way traffic on one of the I-10 twin spans over Lake Pontchartrain.

Less quick to arrive has been the portion of the $5.5 billion in federal funding the state requested in fall 2005 to repair less obvious hurricane damage to its transportation system, including the interstate roadbeds. Congress hasn’t acted yet, and delay makes the problems worse, Lambert says.

“If you have a road that is underwater for several weeks, it’s going to degrade that roadbed,” Lambert says. “It’s going to eat away at the base, and you’ll have more soil erosion. You have to repair the roadbed.”

Despite the disasters, the state has managed to get some major projects under way. “Right now, on I-10, we’ve got more than a half-billion dollars in construction work in motion,” Lambert says.

I-10 over Lake Pontchartrain, for example, will by 2009 be a new route with two three-lane spans, 30 feet off the water. “It’s significant because the existing bridge was only 10 feet high, the contributing factor in allowing the storm surge to be able to pound it,” Lambert says.

The downside is that until the new bridge is finished, the existing lanes over the lake remain closed to over-dimensional loads. For years to come, those loads traveling between Slidell and New Orleans will have to take Interstate 55 and circle the lake, adding 59 miles to the trip.

Trailing Louisiana by only two-tenths of a percent for its typical top spot in the Worst Roads category was Pennsylvania. Owner-operators cited various improvements in the Keystone State, particularly to heavily traveled I-80.

“It’s under construction every single year, but yes, I think it has improved,” says Ken Herman of Knox, Pa.

PennDOT has 12 projects under way on I-80, many scheduled to be finished in 2007, says Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Allen Biehler. “We’ve made tremendous progress on I-80, especially in the middle of the state near Bellefonte,” where a worn-out 3-mile stretch of pavement has been replaced, Biehler says. Another major project: I-78 between New Jersey and the Schuylkill River near Hamburg.

“We have a big system, nearly 40,000 miles, the nation’s fifth largest,” Biehler says. Add to that tough terrain, bad winter weather – and a lot of truck traffic. “You have to go through Pennsylvania to get to anywhere else in the Northeast. So we have lots of potential critics.”

Jeffrey Kitsko, operator of the PAHighways.com watchdog site, which he founded partly in response to Pennsylvania’s consistently negative rankings in the Overdrive survey, says he’s happy the commonwealth no longer owns the top spot. But he points to a May 2006 American Society of Civil Engineers report that categorized 25 percent of Pennsylvania bridges as structurally deficient and another 18 percent as functionally obsolete.

“It is hard to say what improvements have been undertaken to help Pennsylvania dig out of the hole, so to speak,” Kitsko says. “I haven’t seen any more or any less activity from when Pennsylvania was consecutively the worst.”

Highway spending in Pennsylvania is up 23 percent since 2003, the ASCE study notes, even with the commonwealth’s much-reported “flexing” of federal highway funds to mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“We understand the important role trucks play in our economy, and we work hard to make the experience of all our travelers the best it can be,” Biehler says.

Everybody’s got an opinion on Texas. A glance at the Highway Report Card results is enough to see that Texas not only has the best rest areas; it apparently also has the worst.

Owner-operator Lawrence Griffin of McAlester, Okla., says Texas rest areas, particularly the new ones along I-40 in the north, are best for cleanliness, ample space and safety. “One out by Shamrock they made into a tornado shelter in case you get in trouble, and there’s always an attendant on duty,” Griffin says.

On the other hand, owner-operator Ken Herman of Knox, Pa., thinks Texas rest areas are way too small (“You can’t get but 15 trucks in any given one”) and their bathroom stall doors too short (“You sit down