Major federal transportation legislation enacted in 2005 helped states make gains in highway infrastructure even though problems such as traffic congestion and bridge deficiencies persist, the Reason Foundation said in its 17th annual report on state-owned road systems.

"The nation's continuing trend of generally improving highway performance from 1998 to 2003 was reestablished in 2005 and continued in 2006," said the report from the libertarian, free-market policy group. "Six of seven key performance indicators improved between 2005 and 2006."

States lowered their percentages of deficient bridges, narrow rural lanes, fatalities, urban highway congestion, and rural main roads and urban interstates in poor condition. However, the percentage of rural interstates in poor condition worsened, growing about 15% between 2005 and 2006.

The foundation credited growth in highway programs to the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU, which was enacted in 2005 and is due to expire at the end of fiscal 2009.

States "improved pavements, made bridge repairs, and achieved some congestion relief" with their new funding, the foundation said.

Capital and bridge disbursements for state-owned roads grew in 2006 by about 8.7% over 2005, which "reflects the surge forward in improvement due to financing from SAFETEA-LU," the report said. Those disbursements included bond retirement and bond interest payments.

Administrative costs increased in 2006 even faster than the rapidly accelerating cost of pavement, the foundation wrote, making up more than 7% of total highway costs. Administrative disbursements sometimes include bond restructurings, according to the report.

State roads are funded with a hodgepodge of federal money, state fuel taxes, user fees, tolls, and bonds. In 2006 they received a total of about $104.73 billion, a slight 2% increase from 2005.

Receipts per mile of state-owned highway ranged from $31,685 for South Carolina to more than $2.2 million for New Jersey, the report said. The latter, however, ranked lowest for cost-effectiveness - state highway budgets per mile compared with system performance - according to the foundation. South Carolina stayed in the top 10 for high cost-effectiveness. North Dakota topped the list.

While the report highlighted some positive changes, it was not a glowing appraisal of the condition of state highways.

"Despite welcome progress, the study highlights continuing problems. Just under one-quarter of all bridges remain deficient; 50 percent of urban interstates remain congested; accident rates are stubbornly high; and substantial urban interstate mileage remains in poor condition," the report said. "The recent sharp increases in highway construction costs mean that fewer repairs can be made from the same dollars."

Findings were based on state highway data collected from 1984 through 2006 by the federal government. The report gauged each state's highway system performance using 12 indicators - such as highway revenues and expenditures, pavement and bridge condition, congestion and accident rates.

The foundation recommended more front-loaded maintenance projects for infrastructure and a tightening of administrative expenditures.

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