Highway construction projects are suffering from a lack of state funding due to lower fuel tax funding in recent months.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the nation’s roadways. Rapid fuel and construction materials price hikes have been followed by steep drops and broad economic woes. Subsequent drops in vehicle miles traveled have taken a toll on state highway revenue. Public officials continue to debate the merits of alternative highway funding mechanisms.
Meanwhile, roads are aging. Durango, Colo.-based independent owner-operator Zak Hargraves says there are many reasons for the poor quality of the nation’s highway network, but chief among them are state DOTs’ failed attempts to get “as many miles out of their budget as possible,” he says. “Most have done a disservice in accepting a lower quality of construction.”
A prime example of this dynamic, he says, is the many old concrete highways on which right-angle expansion cuts, combined with neglectful maintenance, result in widespread “hobby-horsing” from uneven pavement. That’s one of the chief complaints against I-10 in Louisiana, the third-year “winner” in the Worst Highway Segment category of Overdrive’s Highway Report Card survey.
But in its third year at the top of the Worst Roads list, Louisiana is perhaps a success story in the making, as is Pennsylvania. In spite of its past poor rankings, I-80 within Pennsylvania’s borders had likewise placed high in Overdrive’s survey for Most Improved Highway Segment in recent years. This year owner-operators ranked it first for Most Improved and as the nation’s second best highway segment.
Clearly, things are in flux for perennially troubled states. Here is a closer look at them and a few others named the five states with the worst roads.
2008 Worst Roads Results
‘Really, really bad’
Louisiana might be the new Pennsylvania. This year the Bayou State mimics its northern sister, which dominated the Worst Roads rankings for nearly a decade from the inception of Overdrive’s survey in 1991. Louisiana received a 60 percent larger vote total in the category, the largest victory margin since it took the Worst Roads crown in 2006 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita chewed up its highway network.
Though crews are working on western sections of I-10, the bad segments west of New Orleans “will beat you to death,” says Overdrive 2008 Trucker of the Year Bruce Bryant, leased to Landstar System. Based in Mobile, Ala., Bryant runs I-10 in Louisiana regularly and has seen marked improvements in the past year.
“They’ve completed a stretch from the state line in Texas east to about Sulphur,” he says. “It’s nice and smooth, but from there all the way over to about the 44-mile marker, it’s really, really bad.” Bryant also notes a stretch from near Mile Marker 44 east to Lafayette has been improved.
Survey respondents echoed his sentiments. I-20, once a fixture in the top 10 for Worst Highway Segment, has disappeared from the rankings as improvements have been made. I-10, though it topped that list, also placed third for Most Improved Segment.
If you can spare the extra time, Bryant says, the state’s off-interstate highways can be good alternates. U.S. 90, for example, at times runs parallel to some of the rougher sections of I-10.
‘The Turnpike is a mess’
John Peterson says he drove I-80 every week during his years as a state representative, part of which coincided with Pennsylvania’s top ranking for Worst Roads through the 1990s. “When I drive it today,” he says, “there’s no comparison.”
During his 12-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, which concluded last year, Peterson played a key role in stopping Gov. Edward Rendell’s attempt to turn I-80 over to the Pennsylvania Turnpike for tolling. Peterson helped defeat an I-80 toll supporter in the 75th representative district.
The federal rejection of the application to toll I-80 denies the state’s DOT “more than $300 million a year beginning in July 2010 for investment in highways and bridges,” says PennDOT Press Secretary Richard Kirkpatrick. “At a time when revenues from fuel taxes and license and vehicle fees are falling, the loss of this revenue presents serious challenges.”
The state did see a boost of $350 million in bond funding for repair of the state’s many structurally deficient bridges in the 2008-’09 budget, Jeff Kitsko points out. Kitsko, operator of the informational site PaHighways.com, says he’s heartened by the systemwide project’s go-ahead, but nervous that the bonds’ interest costs will hurt PennDOT later.
While I-80 is improved in the minds of many truckers, some owner-operators continue to punish the state for it and other roads. Chief among them are I-76, or the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and I-78, which placed ninth and tenth, respectively, in the worst segment category. “The Turnpike is a mess, all the truckers tell me,” says Peterson.
‘They’ll tear your truck apart’
Owner-operator and sometime company driver Kevin Greene of Cincinnati, who won Castrol’s 2006 Big Honkin’ Truck Makeover for his 1989 Peterbilt 379, tries to keep his jewel off the roads around Detroit. “I-94, 75, 96 – they’re always trying to work on them,” he says. “They’ll tear your truck apart.”
Paul Coulter, of Glasgow, Ky., concurs: “They’ve got a lot of potholes that are big enough to bust a tire or break a spring.” And it gets worse after a hard winter, he says.
Bill Shreck, of the Michigan Department of Transportation, says it’s no surprise that the state’s jumped in and out of the Worst Roads’ top five throughout the years. “Michigan’s been in the bottom 20 percent in highway funding for 40 years,” he says.
Keith Ledbetter of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association would change that. He points to a legislative analysis released in November that showed the state had lost “43 percent of our purchasing power,” he says, to run funding cuts and commodity price hikes.
Same old story as much of the nation, really, but among MI-ITA’s potential solutions is legislation to enable public-private partnerships (or P3s) on toll roads. Trouble is, the picture for the P3 model is dimmed by rapidly falling construction materials prices and the deflated financial markets, says Peter Samuel, editor of TollRoadsNews.com. With less capital to draw on, investment firms are less able to afford the large up-front lease payments most P3 deals hinge on, and lower construction prices put less pressure on state governments to seek additional revenue.
At the same time, those “more competitive construction prices,” says Samuel, along with the deepening recession, could increase the public’s resistance to fuel-tax hikes. That resistance, ultimately, makes state DOTs more inclined to look to P3s and other alternative funding mechanisms, he says.
‘They’re not doing anything’
Perhaps all the attention California gives to air quality control has come at the loss of attention to its highways.
Owner-operator Duane Chatlain names the Golden State the No. 1 contender for the Worst Roads crown this year. He recalls a recent drive over Donner Pass on I-80 “where you can see the wires sticking through” the road’s deteriorated surface. “All the states have bad parts, but as a whole, as a state that’s 1,000 miles long and close to 500 miles wide, I’d say they’re the worst. And they’re not doing anything with them.”
On a recent haul on I-5 from Oregon almost all the way to Mexico, Chatlain says, “I saw no construction going on out there.” California’s I-5 placed third for Worst Highway Segment.
The state’s fourth straight year in the Worst Roads’ top five follows the launch of Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s Strategic Growth Plan, which is built on the back of infrastructure investment. According to Caltrans’ overview of its role in the plan, $107 billion in transport investment is called for by 2017, though recent reports have highly cited broad budget deficits looming for the Golden State.
‘Still a killer’
After its debut in the Worst Roads’ top five last year at No. 3, Oklahoma seems to be improving with this year’s fifth-place finish. Owner-operator Zak Hargraves calls U.S. 69, the main route from Dallas through Oklahoma and on to Missouri, as the primary rough road, though “they are working on it,” he says.
“A lot of it was the early concrete design,” he says, a nationwide problem as he sees it. “Poor sub-base, joints, etc. I noticed a few weeks ago that the northbound lanes have been repaired a bit.” But southbound, he says, is “still a killer.”
More survey respondents, however, named the state’s more heavily traveled I-40 as the Worst Highway Segment – it took second place in that category. Improvements to some sections are on the way. The state legislature this year approved an eight-year plan that includes $2 billion in expenditures on high-volume highways, including reconstruction of the cross-town section of I-40 in Oklahoma City.
California cities among top 10 urban regions with poor major roadways.
REGION/Percentage of roads in poor condition
1. Los Angeles 65%
2. San Francisco/Oakland 62%
4. San Jose 60%
5. San Diego 53%
8. Sacramento 46%
California has a disproportionate share of urban areas with major roadways in poor condition, according to highway researcher TRIP’s March 2008 report on the subject. Five of the eight metro areas named encompass I-5, the third-place ranking worst highway segment in our Highway Report Card survey.
While Texas continued its now five-year dominance of the Best Roads category, owner-operator Bruce Bryant says the Lone Star State’s portion of I-10 east of Houston is equally bad or worse than that in Louisiana. “Louisiana gets blamed for a lot,” Bryant says, “but it actually starts in Texas, just east of Houston all the way to the state line.” It’s a big state, however, and owner-operators single out the large majority of I-10 and I-20 there as superlative.
- Georgia, Tennessee (tie)
As recently as 2005, Missouri scored second for Worst Roads overall. State DOT director Pete Rahn well remembers “having to answer those tough questions when I-44 was named one of the worst three roads in the country.” Clearly, the state’s Smooth Roads Initiative has gone a long way toward improving truckers’ interstate highway hauls. Rahn says the turnaround is a result of two main factors:
- In 2004, voters approved directing one-half of vehicle sales taxes and fees to the DOT.
- A shift to a broader long-term strategy for highway improvements. Most state DOTs “make decisions based on the project,” Rahn says. “My working philosophy is to concentrate on the system rather than the projects.”
Cattle rancher and small-fleet owner Tom Yeargain has seen that improvement in his sector of the state: “They’re getting a lot better, particularly in the southwest. They’ve got U.S. 71 four lanes all the way to Arkansas.” A brand-new bypass of Bella Vista, Ark., furthermore, is on the ground to the state line and awaiting Arkansas to fund its completion.
All the same, a precipitous drop in vehicle sales tax revenue in late 2008, as well as an ongoing drop in fuels tax revenue, makes maintaining the state’s improved record difficult, Rahn says.