Hold the Wheel Steady: Roughest Rides and Strategies to Make our Roads Smoother

TRIP Executive Summary

These days, keeping the wheel steady can be a challenge on America’s urban roads and highways, nearly a quarter of which provide motorists with a rough ride because of potholes and pavement deterioration.  These major urban roadways – highways and major streets that are the main routes for commuters and commerce – are a critical link in the nation’s transportation system, carrying 78 percent of the approximately 2 trillion miles driven annually in urban America.

Yet many of these major urban streets and highways are showing significant signs of deterioration.  With state and governments facing looming budget deficits and without a long-term federal surface transportation program in place, road conditions could get even worse in the future.

In this report, TRIP examines the condition of major roads in the nation’s most populous urban areas, recent trends in urban travel, the latest developments in repairing roads and building them to last longer, and the funding levels needed to address America’s deteriorated urban roadways.  For the purposes of this report, an urbanized area includes the major city in a region and its neighboring or surrounding suburban areas.  Pavement condition data are the latest available and are derived from the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) 2008 annual survey of state transportation officials on the condition of major state and locally maintained roads, based on a uniform pavement rating index.  The pavement rating index measures the level of smoothness of pavement surfaces, supplying information on the ride quality provided by road and highway surfaces.  The major findings of the TRIP report are:

Nearly a quarter of the nation’s major urban roads are rated in substandard or poor condition, providing motorists with a rough ride and increasing the cost of operating a vehicle.  While the share of the nation’s major urban roads in poor condition decreased from 2007 to 2008, potential deficits in state budgets, the completion of federal transportation stimulus projects and the failure of Congress to approve a long-term federal surface transportation program, may lead to worsening urban pavement conditions.

  • Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of the nation’s major metropolitan roads – Interstates, freeways and other principal arterial routes – have pavements that are in substandard condition and provide an unacceptably rough ride to motorists.  Pavement conditions on the nation’s major urban roads and highways have improved slightly since they were last measured in 2007, when 26 percent were in substandard or poor condition.
  • Approximately a third – 34 percent — of the nation’s major urban roads and highways have pavements that are in good condition, providing motorists with a smooth drive.
  • The twenty urban regions with a population of 500,000 or greater (includes the city and its surrounding suburbs), with the greatest share of major roads and highways with pavements that are in poor condition and provide a rough ride are:
Rank Urban Area Pct. Poor
1 San Jose, California 64%
2 Los Angeles, California 63%
3 Honolulu, Hawaii 62%
4 Concord, California 58%
5 San Francisco-Oakland, California 58%
6 New Orleans, Louisiana 55%
7 New York-Newark, NY/NJ 53%
8 San Diego, California 50%
9 Indio-Palm Springs, California 47%
10 Baltimore, Maryland 46%
11 Kansas City, Missouri / Kansas 45%
12 Riverside-San Bernardino, California 44%
13 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 42%
14 Sacramento, California 42%
15 Omaha, Nebraska 42%
16 San Antonio, Texas 39%
17 Detroit, Michigan 38%
18 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 37%
19 Tulsa, Oklahoma 36%
20 Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas 34%
  • The average urban motorist in the U.S. is paying $402 annually in additional vehicle operating costs as a result of driving on roads in need of repair.  Driving on roads in disrepair increases consumer costs by accelerating vehicle deterioration and depreciation, increasing the frequency of needed maintenance and requiring additional fuel consumption.
  • The twenty urban regions with at least 500,000 people (includes the city and its surrounding suburbs),where motorists pay the most annually in additional vehicle maintenance because of roads in poor condition are:
Rank Urban Area Annual VOC
1 San Jose, California $756
2 Los Angeles, California $746
3 San Francisco – Oakland, California $706
4 Honolulu, Hawaii $701
5 Concord, California $692
6 New Orleans, Louisiana $681
7 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma $662
8 San Diego, California $654
9 New York – Newark, NY/NJ $640
10 Riverside-San Bernardino, California $632
11 Sacramento, California $611
12 Tulsa, Oklahoma $610
13 Indio-Palm Springs, California $609
14 Baltimore, Maryland $603
15 Omaha, Nebraska $587
16 Kansas City, Missouri / Kansas $587
17 San Antonio, Texas $549
18 Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas $539
19 Detroit, Michigan $536
20 Albuquerque, New Mexico $527
  • Congress is currently deliberating over a long-range federal surface transportation program.  The current program, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), was originally scheduled to expire on September 30, 2009.  Following five short-term extensions by Congress, the legislation now expires on December 31, 2010
  • The lack of a long-term federal surface transportation program, which would provide a predictable level of federal funding, is impeding the ability of states to plan and implement large-scale roadway rehabilitation and reconstruction projects.
  • State transportation funding is threatened by the continuing fiscal crisis in state budgets, which in fiscal year 2010 prompted a $74.4 billion reduction in overall state spending.  States’ financial needs continue to far surpass expenditures, with the National Governors Association projecting total state overall budget shortfalls for 2010 – 2011 of more than $127 billion.

Significant increases in travel in the years ahead will put additional stress on roads and make it even more costly to improve and maintain them.

  • Overall vehicle travel increased by 39 percent from 1990 to 2008.  Travel by large commercial trucks grew at an even faster rate, increasing by 49 percent from 1990 to 2008.  Large trucks place significant stress on road surfaces.
  • Vehicle travel is expected to increase approximately 35 percent by 2030, and the level of heavy truck travel nationally is anticipated to increase by approximately 64 percent by 2030, putting greater stress on our nation’s urban roadways.

Pavement conditions are likely to worsen under current funding levels. Through 2025, the U.S. faces a $189 billion shortfall in the cost to maintain urban roadways in their current condition and a $375 billion shortfall in the cost to make significant improvements to urban roadways, based on findings of the DOT study.

  • A 2008 U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) study prepared for Congress found that urban road and highway pavement conditions are likely to worsen at current funding levels, largely because numerous roadways currently or soon will require significant rehabilitation or reconstruction to extend their service life.
  • All levels of government (local, state and federal) are currently spending $14 billion annually in preserving the physical condition of urban roads and highways (excluding bridge repairs).
  • The DOT study estimates that the annual investment needed to maintain urban roads and highways (excluding bridges) in their current condition is $26.6 billion annually – a 90 percent increase in annual funding.
  • Needed annual investment to significantly improve the condition of urban roads and highways (excluding bridges) is $39 billion annually – a 171 percent increase in annual funding.

Projects to improve the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges could boost the nation’s economic recovery by providing significant short- and long-term economic benefits.

  • Highway preservation projects provide significant economic benefits by improving travel speeds, capacity, load-carrying abilities and safety, and reducing operating costs for people and businesses.   Roadway repairs also extend the service life of a road, highway or bridge, which saves money by either postponing or eliminating the need for more expensive future repairs.
  • The nation’s unemployment rate more than doubled — from 4.6 percent in August 2007 to 9.6 percent in August 2010.
  • A 2007 analysis by the Federal Highway Administration found that every $1 billion invested in highway construction would support approximately 27,800 jobs, including approximately 9,500 in the construction sector, approximately 4,300 jobs in industries supporting the construction sector, and approximately 14,000 other jobs induced in non-construction related sectors of the economy.
  • The Federal Highway Administration estimates that each dollar spent on road, highway and bridge improvements results in an average benefit of $5.20 in the form of reduced vehicle maintenance costs, reduced delays, reduced fuel consumption, improved safety, reduced road and bridge maintenance costs and reduced emissions as a result of improved traffic flow.

Transportation agencies can reduce pavement life cycle costs by adopting a pavement preservation approach that emphasizes making early initial repairs to pavement surfaces while they are still in good condition and the use of higher-quality paving materials, which reduces the cost of keeping roads smooth by delaying the need for costly reconstruction.

  • There are five life-cycle stages of a paved surface:  design, construction, initial deterioration, visible deterioration and pavement disintegration and failure.
  • A 2010 Federal Highway Administration report found that an over-reliance on short-term pavement repairs will fail to provide the long-term structural integrity needed in a roadway surface to guarantee the future performance of a paved road or highway.
  • The recent Federal Highway Administration report warned that transportation agencies that focus only on current pavement surface conditions will eventually face a highway network with an overwhelming backlog of pavement rehabilitation and replacement needs.
  • Preventive pavement maintenance treatments include sealing a road surface to prevent moisture from entering cracks in the pavement, applying thin pavement overlays, correcting small surface irregularities and improving surface drainage and friction.
  • A preventive maintenance approach to keeping pavements in good condition has been found to reduce overall pavement life cycle costs by approximately one-third over a 25-year period.
  • Initial pavement preservation can only be done on road surfaces that are structurally sound.  Roads that have significant deterioration must be maintained with surface repairs until sufficient funds are available to reconstruct the road, at which time a pavement preservation strategy can be adopted.
  • The use of thicker pavements and more durable designs and materials for a particular roadway are being used to increase the life span of road and highway surfaces and delay the need for significant repairs.  These new pavements include high performance concrete pavements and perpetual hot mix asphalt pavements.
  • If inadequate maintenance allows potholes to form, using patching materials that are more durable and less susceptible to moisture significantly increases the life span of a minor road repair.

Adequate funding would allow transportation agencies to adopt the following recommendations for insuring a smooth ride.

  • Implement and adequately fund a pavement preservation program that performs initial maintenance on road surfaces while they are still in good condition, postponing the need for significant rehabilitation.
  • When critical routes are constructed or reconstructed, consider using pavement materials and designs that will provide a longer-lasting surface.
  • Resurface roads in a timely fashion using pavement materials that are designed to be the most durable, given local climate and the level and mix of traffic on the road.
  • Maintain an aggressive pothole repair program that uses the best patching material available, based on the severity of the pothole and the volume of traffic carried by a road or highway.
  • Invest adequately to insure that 75 percent of local road surfaces are in good condition.

All data used in the report are the latest available. Sources of information for this report include the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), the AAA, the Transportation Research Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The full report is available athttp://www.tripnet.org/

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