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Ranking the best — and worst — state highways

Reason Foundation releases annual report

North Dakota ranked first, while New Jersey came in dead last (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In case you haven’t heard –– we got infrastructure! After what seemed like an endless back-and-forth between the progressive and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, the proposed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package was finally approved by Congress at the beginning this month.

The ​​controversial bill –– the largest single bill of its kind in decades –– contains some much-needed provisions that address the nation’s struggling infrastructure. Among other things, the infrastructure package allocates $273 billion over five years in recurring federal program funding to be directed toward roads and bridges and sets aside $550 billion in new spending, including $110 billion for roads, bridges and major infrastructure projects.

With a renewed focus on the country’s roads, bridges and highways from the federal government, now is as good a time as any to take stock of current infrastructure conditions across the United States. The average trucker will drive anywhere from 80,000 to 110,000 miles in a year, while the average Uber or Lyft driver can cover around 50,000, so it’s crucial to make each mile as safe as possible.

On Thursday, Reason Foundation released its 26th Annual Highway Report, which assesses and ranks road conditions by state based on a variety of metrics that measure cost versus quality. Using data collected in 2019 and 2020, Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report assigns each state a rating from 1-50 based on their rankings in 13 categories, measuring things like disbursements per mile, pavement conditions and fatality rates. Here’s what they found:

The good

No. 1: North Dakota

For the fourth year in a row, North Dakota topped the Annual Highway Report’s rankings. Despite ranking in the bottom 10 nationally in the percentage of structurally deficient bridges at 10.7%, North Dakota made up for it in pretty much every other metric the report measures.

It ranked second in total disbursements per lane-mile (meaning it spends less per lane-mile than 48 other states), second in maintenance disbursements per lane-mile and second in urban interstate pavement condition. North Dakota commuters spent an average of 6.6 annual peak hours in traffic congestion, ranking 17th, and its overall fatality rate of 1.02 per 100 million vehicle miles ranked 20th.

While rural states like North Dakota have an advantage in categories like urban fatality rate or disbursements per lane-mile, North Dakota ranked so highly on the list because not only did it capitalize on those advantages, but it also outperformed similar states. For example, its average fatality rank was best among states classified as “large geographic area, small population” by the report.

“North Dakota has maintained its No. 1 overall ranking by placing in the top 30 in 10 of 11 categories,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy for Reason Foundation and the report’s lead author. “In fact, other than percent structurally deficient bridges, North Dakota’s next-lowest ranking is 26th.”

No. 2: Virginia

Virginia jumped 19 spots in the Annual Highway Report rankings. (Photo: Jim Allen/Freightwaves)

Not far behind North Dakota is Virginia, ranking second on the list after coming in at 21st overall in the previous report using data from 2018. Virginia’s maintenance spending was not as efficient as North Dakota’s, with its maintenance disbursements per lane-mile totaling $13,757, ranking in the bottom half of states and nearly doubling North Dakota’s spending. Virginia also struggled with congestion, ranking 27th as its commuters spent an average of 8.46 annual peak hours in traffic.

But besides those two metrics, Virginia ranked in the top half of every other category despite having the third-largest highway system in the country in terms of state-controlled highway mileage. Its spending on capital and bridge disbursements per lane-mile was the second-most efficient in the country, and its rural arterial pavement conditions impressively ranked fourth. Virginia was the only state to not fall outside the top 30 in rankings in any category.

“Virginia improved 19 spots in the rankings from the previous version of this report as the state improved in all four disbursement categories, including by double digits in overall disbursements and capital and bridge disbursements,” said Feigenbaum.

No. 3: Missouri

Having finished in the top 10 states overall in each of the past five years, it’s no surprise to see Missouri high on the list. The state does have its fair share of struggles, ranking low in urban fatality rate (three times higher than peer state Minnesota) and percentage of structurally deficient bridges (also triple that of Minnesota), but it’s carried by its efficient spending.

Missouri ranks No. 1 in capital and bridge disbursements, spending just $10,363 per lane-mile, while the top states poured in north of $100,000. It also ranked fifth in total disbursements and ninth in maintenance costs. Missouri’s 77,701 state-owned highway miles give it the third-largest highway system in the U.S.

“To improve in the rankings, Missouri needs to reduce its urban fatality rate and its percentage of structurally deficient bridges,” advised Feigenbaum. “Missouri ranks in the top 30 of all states in all 11 of the other categories. The state is a consistently strong performer, having finished in the top 10 states for the last five years.”

No. 4: Kentucky

Another mainstay at the top of the list in recent years, Kentucky placed fourth on this year’s report, but it struggled with safety. Its overall fatality rate of 1.48 per 100 million vehicle miles was the fourth-worst mark in the country, and its percent of structurally deficient bridges also ranked in the bottom half of states. Kentucky was also middling when it came to the state of its interstates, ranking 21st in rural interstate pavement conditions and 23rd in urban interstate pavement conditions.

That being said, Kentucky had some of the safest arterial roads in the nation, placing ninth in rural arterial pavement condition and sixth in urban arterial pavement condition. It was also a relatively efficient spender, ranking 12th in overall spending per lane-mile and first overall when it came to administrative disbursements.

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“To improve in the rankings, Kentucky needs to reduce its overall fatality rate and urban fatality rate. Both are above the average for Kentucky’s peer states Tennessee and Missouri. While it may be challenging for Kentucky to have a fatality rate as low as Massachusetts, the state can improve from its current bottom five ranking,” said Feigenbaum.

For comparison, Tennessee posted an overall fatality rate of 1.37 per 100 million vehicle miles, ranking 40th, while Missouri posted a rate of 1.11, ranking 27th.

No. 5: North Carolina

North Carolina has the second-largest highway system in the country, trailing only Texas. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

North Carolina has become known for its efficient use of the air as a testing ground for drone delivery pilots, but its highway system was no slouch, placing fifth overall after hovering just outside the top 10 for a few years. The biggest things holding North Carolina back from a higher ranking were its structurally deficient bridges, congestion and overall fatality rate, all of which were in the bottom half of states.

But in every other metric, North Carolina ranked in the top half. In particular, its pavement conditions were some of the best in the country –– it ranked eighth in rural arterial pavement condition and 10th in both urban interstate and urban arterial pavement conditions. The state’s highway system is surprisingly the second largest in the country behind only Texas.

“As a coastal state, North Carolina has more bridges than most states, but bridge quality is the state’s biggest weakness,” Feigenbaum pointed out. “Over the last year the state has taken steps to reduce its rural fatality rate and improve its overall pavement quality leading to a nine-spot increase in the rankings.”

If the state can fix its bridges, its ability to maintain smooth roads at a low cost makes it a contender for the top spot.

The bad

No. 50: New Jersey

New Jersey’s road conditions ranked as some of the worst despite it spending three times more than any other state. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

New Jersey had far and away the worst highway conditions in the country in 2019 and 2020. Surprisingly, New Jersey did well in a couple of categories, ranking fourth in overall fatality rate and even tying for best overall in rural interstate pavement condition, without a single mile of rural interstate roadways classified as “in poor condition.”

But that’s where the good ended. New Jersey’s most pressing problem was without a doubt its egregiously inefficient spending –– the state spent an unfathomable $1.13 million on total disbursements per lane-mile, more than tripling the next-closest state, New York. Yet despite the absurd amount of money being poured into New Jersey highways, their condition was arguably the worst in the entire country.

New Jersey came in 47th for urban interstate pavement condition, 45th for urban arterial pavement condition, 47th in rural arterial pavement condition and dead last in congestion. On average, New Jersey commuters spent a mind-boggling 86.14 annual peak hours in traffic. For comparison, commuters in Utah, the highest-ranking state for congestion, spent an average of just 1.75 peak annual hours in congestion.

“While it may be challenging for New Jersey to reduce its spending, if the state could improve its pavement quality to the national average, it would move up in the overall rankings substantially. As it is, the state has the worst of both worlds: high spending and poor roadways,” Feigenbaum said.

No. 49: Rhode Island

While the situation isn’t as dire in Rhode Island as it is in New Jersey, things still aren’t great. Rhode Island, like New Jersey, was tied for the best rural interstate pavement conditions, and its overall fatality rate of 0.75 per 100 million vehicle miles was seventh best.

But also like New Jersey, Rhode Island’s spending was remarkably inefficient. It was one of the 10 highest-spending states in terms of total disbursements per lane-mile, but it had nothing to show for it, placing at or near dead last in rural and urban arterial pavement conditions and percentage of structurally deficient bridges.

“To improve in the rankings, Rhode Island should try to have its high costs better translate into things like good pavement condition, less traffic congestion and fewer deficient bridges,” Feigenbaum advised. “For example, the state ranks in the bottom 10 in four of the disbursement categories but still ranks in the bottom two states in both arterial pavement condition categories and in percent of structurally deficient bridges.”

No. 48: Alaska

Alaska’s roadside views are some of the most magnificent in the nation, but its rural road conditions are some of the worst. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Alaska’s situation is unique, and its very low population density and lack of land borders pose some unique challenges for its highways. To its credit, the state has done a great job maintaining its urban roads, garnering top-10 placements in urban interstate pavement condition, urban arterial pavement condition and congestion.

However, the contrast between Alaska’s urban and rural roadways could not be starker. The state’s rural interstate and arterial road conditions were both in the bottom three in the nation, and it was one of only three states, alongside Colorado and Washington, with at least 5% of its rural interstate roads in poor condition.

Alaska also ranked near the bottom of the list in both urban and rural fatality rates, though this can be partially explained by the long distances between hospitals in the more remote regions of the state.

“To improve in the report’s overall rankings, Alaska could improve its rural interstate pavement condition, rural arterial pavement condition, rural fatality rate and urban fatality rate,” said Feigenbaum. “The state made progress improving its efficiency.”

No. 47: Hawaii

Another state in a unique situation, Hawaii has similarly struggled to maintain its roads. The state’s best marks were in congestion (18th best) and overall fatality rate (17th best), but the quality of its roads dragged it down in the overall rankings.

Hawaii spent around $156,000 in total disbursements per lane-mile, placing it among the 10 highest spenders, yet its road quality was abysmal. While Hawaii has no rural interstates, it ranked dead last in urban interstate pavement condition, 48th in rural arterial pavement condition and 44th in urban arterial pavement condition. Nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s urban interstate pavement was in poor condition, 19 times the percentage of peer state Alaska.

The state also ranked last in rural fatality rate, with its rate of 4.86 per 100 million vehicle miles more than doubling the next-closest state (Nevada) and nearly quadrupling the national average.

“To improve in the report’s overall rankings, Hawaii needs to have its high spending translate into better pavement quality as well as a lower rural fatality rate and urban fatality rate. For example, while the state ranks in the bottom 15 for three of the four disbursement rankings, it also ranks in the bottom 10 for all three pavement quality rankings (Hawaii has no rural interstates) and for rural and urban fatality rates,” Feigenbaum explained.

No. 46: New York

Rounding out the bottom five, New York finds itself in a similar situation to New Jersey and Rhode Island. The Empire State did well in limiting fatalities on the road, posting the sixth-best overall fatality rate, but its high spending and low road quality dragged it down the rankings.

New York was the second-highest spender when it came to total disbursements per lane-mile, trailing only New Jersey, but its roadways were in a similarly poor condition. New York ranked in or near the bottom 10 states in all four of the report’s measurements of roadway conditions, also placing in the bottom 10 in congestion and percentage of structurally deficient bridges.

“While it may be challenging for New York to reduce its spending, if the state could improve its pavement and bridge quality to the national average, it would move up in the overall rankings substantially,” Feigenbaum opined. “As it is, the state has the worst of both worlds: high spending and poor roadways.”

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.