The United States of Disrepair:
States with the Worst Road Conditions
The U.S. is among the top 5 countries in the world with the highest number of motor vehicles per 1,000 people. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), as of January 2019, there is an estimated 272,480,899 registered vehicles on American roads.
Americans prefer to get around by driving their own vehicles, which means our roads and highways are essential to our daily grind—yet we've allowed them to fall into disrepair.
America's road infrastructure is aging. More and more roads and highways are nearing the end of their service life. As an economy that relies heavily on moving people and products quickly via land transport, the lack of long-term maintenance solutions is alarming. Despite the worsening conditions of our roads, overall U.S. infrastructure spending remains on a downward trend.
Saying we desperately need to turn things around is an understatement. But before we can find real and lasting solutions to our ailing road infrastructure, we need to understand how and why things got to this point.
In this article we will:
Uncover the current state of the U.S. highway system. What does it mean when roads are classified to be in 'poor' condition?
Find out which states have the best and worst roads in America
Learn about the impact of deteriorating road infrastructure on the everyday American citizen.
Identify which levels of government are responsible for maintaining our roads. Why are they failing miserably?
Understand what needs to be done in the long-term to prevent our highways from falling into disrepair.
How are road conditions classified?
The FHWA uses a rating system that determines pavement condition through their rate of deterioration. This system allows government agencies to identify which highways need to be preserved, rehabilitated, or reconstructed.
Road condition ratings are based on two primary factors:
1. Functional pavement condition
Describes factors that affect the surface texture of the road and affect ride quality. This rating measures skid resistance and rut depth to determine functional capacity.
2. Structural pavement condition
Observes levels of cracking or faulting in the pavement to determine structural capacity. Takes note of factors such as material properties and layer thickness.
Road Ratings in the United States
Good - A "Good" rating means it will take more than 8 years before a road is expected to reach the threshold for functional and structural deterioration. Preservation work is recommended for these roads.
Fair - A "Fair" rating means that the threshold for road deterioration will be reached between 4 to 8 years. A combination of preservation and rehabilitation treatments must be applied to these roads.
Poor - A "Poor" rating means that road conditions are expected to reach the threshold for deterioration in less than 4 years. Heavy road rehabilitation and reconstruction work are recommended.
Percentage of roads inGood condition per state
Percentage of roads inFair condition per state
Percentage of roads inPoor condition per state
Who is to blame for the poor condition of our roads?
Road construction and maintenance have historically been the responsibility of government. During the time of early colonial settlers, the federal government used the revenue from land sales to build a vast network of roadways that established their territory and developed interior lands.
This system made it possible to build and maintain roads—even in areas that were sparsely populated. Over the years, ownership and responsibility for these roads have fallen on state and local authorities.
City and county governments are responsible for 77.4% of the nation's roads.
Individual states own 19.6% of public roads, including most interstate highway systems.
Only 3% of roads fall under federal management.
A Closer Look at the Worst Roads in America
Looking at the list of states with the worst roads gives us a better understanding of the severity of America's infrastructure problem.
Rhode Island has the worst highways in the U.S. with 53% of its roads classified to be in 'poor' condition. The state's aging highway network has been deteriorating at a rapid rate over the last few decades due to a combination of heavy use, lack of funding, and maintenance delays.
California, a state notorious for its long commutes and frequent gridlocks, came in second on the list with 45%.
Hawaii's poorly built road network continues to struggle with its tropical climate, ranking third with 42%.
The list continues with New Jersey (34%), Connecticut (34%), Oklahoma (33%), West Virginia (31%), New Mexico (31%), Pennsylvania (30%), and Mississippi (30%).
How did American roads get this bad?
Failing to Build for the Future
Building one of President Dwight Eisenhower's greatest legacies - the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways - didn't come cheap. It cost the federal government an estimated $425 billion.
Approximately 48,000 miles of these controlled-access highways were hastily laid between the '50s and '70s.
A modern highway network looked and sounded good on paper, which is sadly why the government prioritized completing the project as fast as they could. Discussions about urban planning, longevity, and long-term maintenance were put to the wayside. After all, the future seemed far away.
Today, many citizens are suffering from this lack of foresight.
Highway engineers failed to anticipate the rise of the trucking industry and the shift away from transporting freight through rail. Roads that were meant to carry 2,000 lb. cars are taking a beating from countless trucks and trailers weighing at least 30,000 lbs.
Building Roads VS Fixing Roads
The nation's road network is expanding steadily through road-widening projects. From 2009 to 2017, enough lane-miles were added to drive across the U.S. 83 times.
New infrastructure projects may seem like a good thing, but studies have shown that the economic impact of building new roads has dwindled over the years.
Repairing the worst roads in America will benefit a greater number of the population, yet politicians continue to fail to prioritize it. In fact, states continue to allocate inadequate amounts for road maintenance.
The reality is that a highway expansion gets more press than fixing cracks and potholes.
Authorities vying for reelection would rather have their names tied to new infrastructure projects. Knowing that routine maintenance barely gets any publicity, politicians keep deprioritizing these projects—to a point where roads just become more and more rundown, and as a result, more expensive to fix.