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Commentary

Progress in de-crumbling roads

12 Jan 2011 by Jim Fickett.

The US Federal Highway Administration makes a biannual report to Congress on the state of the nation's roads. In direct contradiction of the “crumbling infrastructure” meme, this report shows steadily improving conditions.

I continue to read, almost daily, articles that bemoan the “crumbling infrastructure” (usually meaning the transportation infrastructure) of America. Tellingly, such articles never provide a shred of evidence that the transportation infrastructure is actually worsening in any significant way.

Last October I pointed out that

  • All serious studies can be traced back to data from the Federal Highway Administration
  • At least one study based on that data showed improvement, rather than degradation
  • The bandwagon on which reporters happily ride is thoughtfully provided by a group with a massive conflict of interest – the American Society of Civil Engineers who, however, provide no evidence for the bad grades they give

Recently I discovered that the Federal Highway Administration makes a biannual report for Congress on the state of the transportation infrastructure, entitled Status of the Nation's Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance. The latest is from 2008.

The Highway Administration comes to the conclusion that the infrastructure has, on the whole, been steadily improving for a long time. There follow a few examples.

Pavement ride quality has steadily improved

Pavement Ride Quality on the National Highway System

As shown in Exhibit 3-2, the share of NHS VMT [National Highway System Vehicle Miles Traveled] on pavements with good ride quality has risen sharply over time, from approximately 39 percent in 1997 to approximately 57 percent in 2006. The VMT on NHS pavements meeting the less stringent standard of acceptable ride quality grew more slowly, from approximately 89 percent in 1997 to approximately 93 percent in 2006.

The fraction of bridges needing upgrades has gone down

Regarding bridges, the Highway Administration mainly keeps track of the fraction of bridges for which an upgrade is desirable. That fraction has improved over time.

Structurally deficient bridges are not inherently unsafe. Bridges are considered structurally deficient if significant load-carrying elements are found to be in poor or worse condition due to deterioration and/ or damage, or the adequacy of the waterway opening provided by the bridge is determined to be extremely insufficient to the point of causing intolerable traffic interruptions. That a bridge is deficient does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe.

Functional obsolescence is a function of the geometrics (i.e., lane width, number of lanes on the bridge, shoulder width, presence of guardrails on the approaches, etc.) of the bridge in relation to the geometrics required by current design standards. While structural deficiencies are generally the result of deterioration of the conditions of the bridge components, functional obsolescence generally results from changing traffic demands on the structure.

[ADT is Average Daily Traffic]

Buses have gotten slightly faster, but trains slightly slower

In any case, overall average transit speeds have not crumbled.

Highway safety has improved dramatically

Funding has been adequate

A separate report, from the National surface transportation infrastructure financing commission, shows that, after the bump in funding that built the interstate highway system, starting in 1956, funding has been essentially a constant fraction of GDP: