California’s roads improve, but still are troubled according to new study

Road constructionSACRAMENTO – Despite its well-documented inefficiencies and travails, California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has managed to improve the state’s system of roads, bridges and freeways incrementally in recent years, according to a newly released annual survey of state highway systems by the free-market-oriented Reason Foundation.

Reason’s 22nd Annual Highway Report ranked California 42nd. While this is still in the lowest category, the ranking has steadily improved over the years, moving up from a low of 46th. Because of data-collection delays, the rankings only go through 2013.

The study measures a number of important factors: Road conditions on freeways and primary commercial highways, the state of each state’s bridges, fatality rates and various costs per mile – administrative, maintenance, capital costs and expenditures.

California has done particularly poorly on the spending side of the equation. It ranked 44th in total disbursements per mile; 43rd in maintenance disbursements per mile; 40th in capital and bridge disbursements per mile; and 47th in administrative disbursements. That reinforces a California state auditor study from last summer showing that Caltrans may have as many as 3,500 unnecessary job positions.

The state’s overall per-mile capital and bridges cost totaled nearly $170,000 – far costlier than highest-ranked South Carolina, at nearly $21,000, or middle-ranked Utah, at nearly $78,000. But California wasn’t nearly the worst. Worst-ranked New Jersey spends $839,000 per mile; Florida spends more than $380,000; and Illinois spends nearly $202,000. On administrative costs, California spends more than $47,000 per mile, compared to $1,107 per mile in top-ranked Kentucky and $3,762 in 10th ranked Texas.

On the bad side, California had one of the highest proportions of rural interstate mileage in poor condition, at 6.52 percent. Its urban interstate mileage in poor condition was even worse, at 13.32 percent, which isn’t a surprise to anyone who regularly navigates the Los Angeles, San Diego or Bay Area highway systems. The survey only looks at state-owned highway systems, not at the myriad local and regional systems that are in various conditions.

“The good news is that California reported the lowest percentage of deficient bridges of any state in the nation,” according to Reason Vice President Adrian Moore, writing in the Orange County Register. California also ranked 10th in highway fatalities with a rate of 0.9 per 100 million vehicle miles. The best performance was in Massachusetts, with 0.58 fatalities per 100 million miles and the worst was Montana, with 1.9 fatalities per 100 million miles. Those rates, however, have been dropping nationwide.

One of the survey’s authors, Reason Senior Fellow David T. Hartgen, told me Caltrans didn’t do anything dramatic between 2012 and 2013 to explain the rating improvement – but it did improve a significant number of bridges and roadways.

“A widening performance gap seems to be emerging between most states that are making progress and a few states that are finding it difficult to improve,” according to the report’s authors. “There is also increasing evidence that higher-level road systems (Interstates, other freeways and principal arterials) are in better shape than lower-level road systems, particularly local roads.”

The good news: California is among those states that are improving. The bad news: It has an extremely long way to go to reduce congestion and bring state and local roads up to snuff. On a controversial note, California’s recently released transportation plan seems to downplay the importance of expanding the state’s highway and road infrastructure.

The “California Transportation Plan 2040” focuses more on battling climate change than on expanding the state’s already clogged network of highways. “By 2040, California will have completed an integrated rail system linking every major region in the state, with seamless one-ticket transfers to local transit,” wrote Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly.

“Responding to the desires of millennials and aging baby boomers alike, we will further invest in complete, safe pedestrian and bicycle networks,” Kelly added. He also promised a new approach toward lowering maintenance costs on roads and bridges. But the state’s blueprint relies heavily on alternative transportation sources, rather than on freeways and road construction, given the “transportation system must do its part to reduce these threats (climate change) to our environment and health.”

Other reports paint a mostly gloomy picture of California’s transportation situation. Last year, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Development Committee – during a special session designed to come up with additional funding for transportation programs – reported that “54 of California’s 58 counties have an average pavement rating of ‘poor’ or ‘at risk,’ with much of this deterioration occurring over the past six years.”

Reason found California to top the national charts on bridge condition, but the state Senate pointed to 3,000 “structurally deficient bridges.” The committee pointed to an expected doubling of freight moved on California’s freeways (from 2002 to 2035), to suggest that the state’s infrastructure will face an accelerated level of deterioration.

The session failed to come up with a long-term funding solution, but that will no doubt be a top item for the Legislature next year.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at [email protected].

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut is CalWatchdog’s contributing editor. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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