WASHINGTON — A new Reason Foundation study analyzing road trends over the past two decades challenges claims of "crumbling infrastructure," which have been used by transportation advocates and policymakers as justification for everything from higher taxes to new or expanded bond programs.
The study, led by David T. Hartgen, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, found that spending on state-controlled roads actually increased from 1989 to 2008, while the conditions of roads and bridges have actually improved as well.
"There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren't crumbling," said Hartgen. "The overall condition of the state-owned road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape. The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good."
Hartgen and co-authors M. Gregory Fields and Elizabeth San José compiled the report from a variety of sources, primarily information the states reported to the federal government. They tracked not only spending, but also road performance in seven categories such as Interstates in poor condition, deficient bridges and highway fatalities.
Transportation advocates, politicians and even market participants have repeatedly sounded alarms over a national transportation funding crisis, citing dwindling federal highway trust fund revenue, which has led to downgrades of bonds backed by that money. The crisis has also sent governors and federal and state lawmakers scrambling to address the problem with everything from gas-tax increases to proposals for new tax-credit and direct-pay bond programs as well as a national infrastructure bank.
While the Reason study's authors do not dispute the desirability of new investments, their findings dispute the panic mode being embraced by other groups.
"The amount of state-controlled road mileage increased by just 0.6% from 1989 to 2008," the study notes. "However, spending per mile on state-administered roads grew by 60%, adjusted for inflation, during that time."
Texas and Florida led in spending increases, with Texas increasing its per-mile spending by 174.5% and Florida upping its outlays by 149.6%, adjusted for inflation.
The quality of the roads and bridges also improved in most places, the study concludes, although there is some divide between performance among states.
"Eleven states - North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado and Florida - improved in all seven categories, and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics," the study states. "California was the only state that failed to improve in at least three areas, making strides only in deficient bridges and the fatality rate. Five states - New York, Hawaii, Utah, Vermont and Mississippi - progressed in just three categories."
The study urges wiser spending, focusing on the analysis of performance metrics and setting realistic goals for road quality.
"A recent study of urban congestion needs, for instance, estimates that about $553 billion would be needed over 20 years to effectively remove extreme congestion in the nation's cities," the study states. "Although this is a significant amount, it is only about one-half the estimated federal expenditure over the same period, and only about one-sixth of the total amount likely to be spent on roads nationwide over the same period. Focusing federal funds on those problems of national significance would allow local funds to be targeted at such issues as local congestion."
Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at Reason, said lawmakers should avoid alarmist rhetoric to spur programs aimed at expanding federal and state programs "willy-nilly."
"The widespread belief that 'our highways are crumbling' and that, as [U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray] Lahood said recently, 'America is one big pothole,' are gross exaggerations," he said.