Best and Worst State Highway Systems

July 11, 2013

Which states have the best highway systems? The Reason Foundation recently released its 20th Annual Report on the "Performance of State Highway Systems," an annual review of which states are getting the best bang for their buck in terms of highway spending.

Reason Foundation is a tax-exempt research and education organization supported by voluntary contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations.

The report annually rates state highway systems on cost versus effectiveness. Since the states have different budgets, system sizes and traffic, comparative performance depends on both system quality and the resources available. To determine relative performance, state highway system budgets (per mile of responsibility) are compared with system performance, state by state. "States rated high typically have good-condition systems along with relatively thin budgets," researchers say.

The latest study compares overall highway performance of the state highway systems for 2009 and for prior years. This year's leading states are North Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana. Among the worst performing states are Alaska, Rhode Island, Hawaii, California and New Jersey.

As in prior years, the best-performing states tend to be smaller, rural states with limited congestion, according to the study. But several larger states with large urban areas also rank well: Missouri (8th), Texas (11th) and Georgia (12th).

"Although it is tempting to ascribe these ratings solely to background circumstances, a more careful review suggests that numerous factors—terrain, climate and geography, urban congestion, system age, budget priorities, unit cost differences, state budget circumstances and management philosophies, just to name a few — are likely also affecting overall performance," researchers say.

Several states improved their ratings sharply from 2008:

- Vermont improved 14 spots, from 42nd to 28th, as total disbursements increased slightly and the state's urban interstate condition problem was largely resolved.

- New Hampshire improved 9 spots, from 27th to 18th. Maintenance disbursements remained twice the national per-mile average but the state's urban interstate condition problem was largely resolved.

- Washington improved 9 spots, from 33rd to 24th, as total disbursements increased slightly and its mileage of poor condition (on urban and rural interstates and rural arterials) improved.

On the other hand several states worsened sharply from 2008:

- Minnesota fell 17 spots, from 25th to 42nd, as its mileage in poor condition (on urban and rural interstates and rural arterials) worsened considerably (by 4.3, 5.7 and 0.6 percentage points, respectively).

- Delaware fell 9 spots, from 11th to 20th, as total disbursements increased slightly and the percentage of urban interstates in poor condition doubled.

- Alabama fell 7 spots, from 20th to 27th, as total disbursements increased slightly and system performance worsened.

- Arkansas fell 7 spots, from 29th to 36th, as total disbursements remained flat while system performance worsened.

- Colorado fell 7 spots, from 34th to 41st, as disbursements increased but there was a large increase (4.1 percentage points) in the percentage of poor- condition rural interstates.

Top Ten States, 2009:

1. North Dakota:

North Dakota continues to hold the first position in the overall performance ratings. It has a total of 7,408 miles under the state-owned highway system. All rankings for 2009 were in the top ten, except in two areas (fatality rate at 44th and deficient bridges at 20th) and all bested the national averages, except for fatality rate, which was 51 percent worse than the national rate. North Dakota's relatively low traffic volumes, modest congestion and good system condition, combined with relatively low expenditures, have consistently placed it in the top- performing states.

2. Kansas:

With 10,607 miles under the state control, in 2009, Kansas moved up one position from 2008 to second in the overall performance ratings. Although there were no number one ratings, Kansas had excellent performance scores across the board, especially in areas where there were many states tied for first. Moreover, there was only one area in which it did not best the U.S. average: its fatality rate was 15 percent better than the national rate. And Kansas was able to achieve this performance in spite of spending 24 percent less than the U.S. average per-mile spending.

3. Wyoming:

With 7,755 miles of state-owned highway system, Wyoming ranked third in the overall performance ratings in 2009, improving four slots over 2008 when it was ranked seventh. It outperformed the national averages in all but two categories, fatality rate (38th nationwide) and urban interstate mileage in poor condition (41st nationwide). Despite per-mile spending of about 58-72 percent of the U.S. average, Wyoming has been ranked in the top seven the last three years and in the top 10 since 2000.

4. New Mexico:

In 2009, New Mexico maintained its fourth position in overall performance ratings. It reported a total of 12,166 miles under the state control. It bested the U.S. average in all categories except administrative disbursements per mile and fatality rate, where it exceeded the averages by 70 percent and 22 percent, respectively. New Mexico maintains a good highway system while spending substantially less per-mile than average; in 2009, per-mile spending was 37 percent below the national average.

5. Montana:

In 2009, Montana ranked fifth in the overall performance ratings, a slight decline from the second position in 2008. With 11,134 miles under state control, Montana has a medium-sized state highway system that is in good shape. It bested the U.S. averages in all but two categories (urban interstates in poor condition and fatality rate), while spending at less than half the national per-mile rate. Montana has been in the top ten every year since 2000, except in 2004 when it finished 13th.

6. Nebraska:

Nebraska is rated sixth in the overall performance ratings in 2009, down slightly from fifth place in 2008. With 10,170 miles under state control, it has been in the top ten since 2006. With only three top ten rankings in the 11 categories in 2009, Nebraska nonetheless bested the U.S. averages in all but one category — fatality rate — where it was just 1 percent worse than the national average. It achieved this performance while spending less than half the national average per highway mile.

7. South Carolina:

South Carolina is also in the top ten, where it has finished every year since 2000 except 2002. It ranked seventh in 2009 slipping one position from 2008. With 41,613 miles under state control, it is the fourth largest state-administered system in the country. South Carolina has traditionally had a very thin budget relative to system size: for 2009, it ranked in the top five in all disbursement categories. It bested the U.S. averages in all but three categories: rural interstates in poor condition, where it exceeded the national average by 24 percent (a significant drop in performance from 2008); urban interstate congestion, where it exceeded the national average by 2 percent; and, fatality rate where it exceeded the national average by 60 percent.

8. Missouri:

With 33,638 miles under state control, Missouri is the seventh largest state-administered system. In 2009, it ranked eighth in the overall performance rankings, maintaining the same ranking as in 2008, despite spending only about 51 percent of the national average per-highway mile. Missouri bested the U.S. averages in all but three categories (rural arterial mileage with narrow lanes, deficient bridges and fatality rate), where it exceeded national averages by 35, 24 and 12 percent, respectively.

9. South Dakota:

South Dakota ranked ninth in overall performance in 2009, up from 12th in 2008. With 8,895 miles under state control, South Dakota maintains its system in good condition despite spending about half the national per- ile average. While the performance in most categories is better than the national averages, four areas were worse: deficient bridges (5 percent worse), fatality rate (20 percent worse), urban interstate in poor condition (32 percent worse) and rural arterials in poor condition (2.5 times the U.S. average).

10. Mississippi:

In 2009, Mississippi ranked 10th in the overall performance ratings — an improvement from 2008, when it ranked 16th and a sharp improvement from 2007, when it ranked 27th. With 10,997 miles in the state-owned highway system, Mississippi bested the U.S. averages in all but two categories (deficient bridges and fatality rate), while spending about two-thirds of the national per-mile average. While the percentage of deficient bridges is close to the national average (4 percent over), the fatality rate is 52 percent higher and could be a problem area.

Bottom Ten States

50. Alaska:

In 2009, Alaska ranked 50th in the overall performance ratings, one position down from 2008 when it was ranked 49th. Alaska has 7,401 miles under the state-owned highway system. Although ranked last, Alaska has three major problem areas: rural arterials in poor condition (over 29 times the national average), rural interstates in poor condition (3.5 times the national average) and the fatality rate (14 percent above the national rate). Despite increasing maintenance spending per mile (which in 2009 was 27 percent above the national average), Alaska's rural highways continue to report poor performance.

49. Rhode Island:

Rhode Island ranked 49th in the overall performance rankings in 2009, up one position from 50th in 2008. With 1,112 miles in the state-owned highway system, Rhode Island is the second smallest system and ranks 42nd in per-mile spending, with disbursements per mile 2.4 times the national average. Despite this spending, the highway system lags the U.S. averages in three key areas: rural arterials in poor condition (almost 16 times the national average); deficient bridges (2.25 times the national average); and, urban interstate congestion (23 percent above the national average). The bottom line is that Rhode Island is spending two to three times the national per-mile average on its state road system, but its rural non-interstate roads, deficient bridges and urban congestion are not improving.

48. Hawaii:

In 2009, Hawaii ranked 48th in the overall performance rankings, slipping one position from 2008 where it ranked 47th. With 1,011 miles under the state-owned highway system, Hawaii is the smallest system among the 50 states. It has also been in the bottom five performing systems each year since 2000, except 2004 when it finished 43rd. In 2009, its system underperformed the U.S. averages in all but three categories (rural interstate condition, urban interstate congestion and fatality rate), despite spending 3.2 times the national per-mile average. Of particular note are the urban interstate mileage and rural primary arterial mileage in poor condition, which exceed the national averages by factors of 5.4 and 4.2, respectively.

47. California:

With a state-owned highway system of 18,260 miles, California ranked 47th in the overall performance rankings in 2009, up from 48th in both 2007 and 2008. This improvement came following a significant increase (24 percent more than 2008) in per-mile highway expenditures, making total per-mile disbursements 4.7 times the national average. Improvements in rural road conditions (from 43rd to 39th) were reported. Despite these expenditures and the one point increase in overall standings, California remains in the bottom 10, where it has been since 2000. Still, it bested the U.S. averages in three areas: rural arterial mileage with narrow lanes (39 percent below the national average), deficient bridges (20 percent below the national average) and fatality rate (16 percent below the national rate).

46. New Jersey:

New Jersey, with 3,333 miles of state highways, stands at 46th in the overall performance ratings in 2009, down one place from 2008. Its main problem seems to be its financial performance rather than the performance of the system itself. New Jersey spends 8.4 times the national per-mile average, but bests the national averages in just three categories: rural arterial mileage with narrow lanes (0 miles narrow), rural interstate mileage in poor condition (0 miles poor, a dramatic improvement over 2008) and fatality rate (30 percent below the national rate). However urban road conditions (pavement condition and congestion) rate in the bottom five states.

45. New York:

New York ranked 45th in the overall performance ratings in 2009, up one position from 2008 when it ranked 46th. With 16,301 miles, it has the 16th largest state-controlled highway system in the nation. In 2009 it spent 2.6 times the national average per-mile expenditures, but beat U.S. averages in only two categories: fatality rate (24 percent better than the national rate) and urban interstate congestion (1 percent better than the national average). Despite this spending, New York's system has been one of the bottom 10 performing systems each year since 2000.

44. Connecticut:

For the year 2009, Connecticut ranked 44th in the overall performance rankings, down from 41st in 2008. With 4,064 miles under state highway control, it is one of the smaller systems in the country. Connecticut's main problem seems to be total highway disbursements (3.6 times the national per-mile average) and especially administrative disbursements (7.2 times the national per-mile average). Despite its poor overall score, Connecticut performed well in several areas, besting the U.S. averages in rural interstate mileage in poor condition (0 miles poor), fatality rate (38 percent below the national rate) and rural arterial mileage with narrow lanes (91 percent below the national average).

43. Massachusetts:

In 2009, Massachusetts ranked 43rd in the overall performance rankings, up from 44th in 2008 and had 3,639 miles under the state-owned highway system. Its main problem seems to be total highway disbursements (4.4 times the national per-mile average) and especially administrative disbursements (6.1 times the national per-mile average). Despite its poor overall score, Massachusetts's system outperformed U.S. averages in all categories but one, deficient bridges, where it had 53 percent more deficient bridges than the national average. Bottom line: Massachusetts is spending four to five times the national per-mile average but seems to be getting a relatively good system.

42. Minnesota:

In 2009, Minnesota ranked 42nd in the overall performance ratings, down 18 positions from 24th in 2008. With 12,905 miles under its state-controlled highway system, it has the 19th largest system in the country. In 2009 Minnesota's total per-mile disbursements were slightly less (11 percent) than the national average, but its mileage in poor condition (on urban and rural interstates and rural arterials) worsened considerably, with mileage in poor condition increasing 4.3, 5.7 and 0.6 percentage points, respectively. Otherwise, only urban interstate congestion performance was worse (by 66 percent) than the national average.

41. Colorado:

In the overall performance rankings, Colorado stood at 41st in 2009, down seven positions from 2008. With 9,764 miles under the state-owned highway system, it has a mid-sized system, with total per-mile expenditures slightly (13 percent) above the national average. In 2009, Colorado saw a big drop (4.1 percentage points) in the condition of its rural interstates. This poor condition mileage, coupled with a relatively high number of rural arterial miles with narrow lanes (32 percent above the U.S. average), are the main reasons Colorado ranked in the bottom 10 overall. Otherwise, its system is solidly in the middle of the pack.

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