No, America’s roads and bridges are not crumbling

Among President Obama’s most persistent demands for new spending is the perennial call for large-scale “infrastructure” spending.  To hear Obama tell it, the United States of 2013 is a “Road Warrior” wasteland filled with disintegrating roads and bridges, desperately awaiting billions of dollars in government spending.  In the past, he has amusingly set up photo ops near bridges that wouldn’t be affected by his plans to plump for “infrastructure,” selecting them because they looked good on camera, or straddled key congressional districts.  He’s currently agitating for $40 billion in “urgent upgrades.”  It is considered extremely rude to ask him what happened to the countless billions he appropriated for “infrastructure” in his trillion-dollar 2009 stimulus plan.

It’s even more rude to undertake a serious study of the problem and conclude that “twenty years of highway data show roads and bridges aren’t crumbling,” but that’s just what the Reason Foundation did.  Their new study “tracks spending per mile on state-owned roads and measures road performance in seven categories: miles of urban Interstate highways in poor pavement condition, miles of rural Interstates in poor condition, congestion on urban Interstates, deficient bridges, highway fatalities, rural primary roads in poor condition and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow.”

The result?  “In the 20 years examined, 11 states (North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Nebraska, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Florida) made progress in all seven categories and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics.  California was the only state that failed to improve in at least three areas, making strides only in deficient bridges and fatalities.  Five states-New York, Hawaii, Utah, Vermont and Mississippi-progressed in just three categories.”

Well, everyone knows they’re notorious penny-pinchers out in California; you need a crowbar to pry a dollar of spending from the white-knuckled grip of their dour legislature. But it’s hard to look at the situation as a matter of insufficient spending, because the Reason Foundation found “the amount of state-controlled road mileage increased by just .6 percent from 1989 to 2008,” but “spending per mile on state-administered roads grew by 60 percent, adjusted for inflation, during that time.”

The report’s lead author, emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte David Hartgen, said his purpose was not to imply that work still needs to be done here and there on America’s roads.  Certainly some areas are in more need of improvement than others.  However, Hartgen judged that “the overall condition of the state-controlled 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.”

For example, the report notes that the pace of improvement in rural interstate highways has slowed a bit over the past decade, particularly in California, Alaska, New Jersey, and New York.  On the other hand, urban interstates have been doing better and better during the same years.  Many people believe urban highway congestion is getting worse, but actually, on average, the reverse is true… in part as a result of reduced driving during the protracted recession and non-recovery.  Of course, that’s not much comfort to drivers who find themselves stuck in an area that remains prone to traffic snarls.

You won’t hear that kind of measured assessment from a politician eager to frighten taxpayers out of fresh billions.  But it’s remarkable how much can be learned, if one is willing to take a deep breath and study the actual data carefully.