As legislators fret about how to resolve the transportation funding dilemma — the latest wrinkle is that Democrats are threatening to withhold their support for increasing transportation taxes unless Governor Bob McDonnell caves on Medicaid expansion — they would be well advised to consult a new Reason Foundation report, “Are Highways Crumbling? State and U.S. Highway Performance Trends, 1989-2008.”
The Reason report offers a bit of good news: Virginia’s roads and highways are in a very good state of repair. One can argue that congestion is bad and getting worse, but no one can say that our roads are crumbling. Here is a summary of Virginia road conditions (ranked by greatest improvement among the 50 states):
Scratch below the surface and you may find data that supports the point of view of McDonnell and his allies who want to to raise more money to build more rail and roads. The main gains to the quality of Virginia’s highway system occurred in the 1990s — when the Virginia Department of Transportation was still relatively flush with cash after the 1986 round of tax increases. As inflation eroded the gas tax over the years , the quality gains began to diminish. On the other hand, one could argue that the road system was in such good shape by 1999, there was little left to do in the 2000s. After a certain point, chasing further gains is a waste of money.
But there’s a riposte to that, too. Virginia has made only marginal progress reducing the percentage of deficient bridges — and all the gains occurred in the 1989-199 time frame. The state has since backtracked from 24.5% to 26.1%. Cherry pick the data, as it suits your argument.
Safe roads. Another interesting finding: In 2008 Virginia had the third lowest (tied with Vermont) rate of highway fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles driven — 1.00, down from 1.69 in 1989. Whatever else you say about our roads, they are among the nation’s safest. Nobody talks about it, but road safety has enormous economic significance. The cost to society of accident, injuries and fatalities is three times that of congestion, according to AAA data.
Congestion? What congestion? The figure that stands out to me is the measure of “percent of urban interstates congested.” The percentage has declined as follows:
1989 — 64.8%
1999 — 37.9%
2008 — 37.9%
Who would ever known from the howls of agony that interstate congestion got no worse over the 2000s? That data is not an outlier. It is consistent with the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) data in its 2012 Urban Mobility report that travel time delay in the Washington metro area peaked in 2007, plummeted through 2009 and has only edged back up in the past two years.
But, but, but… Washington congestion is the worst in the country, right? Yes, measured by TTI’s hours per year of congestion-related delay per commuter. But measured by Reason’s percentage of congested urban interstate, Virginia has a smaller percentage than Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, Nebraska, New York, Maryland, Utah, North Carolina, Oregon, Connecticut… need I keep going?
Hat tip: Norm Leahy at Bearing Drift