Highways and Bridges Are Not Crumbling
Politicians and interest groups claim America’s highways and bridges are falling apart— “crumbling,” we’re sometimes told. My efforts to assess the situation suggest they are not. Others—including researchers from the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research—have drawn similar conclusions. Yet the new “bipartisan infrastructure bill” plows ahead with the same old sound bites and spending plans.
Even if it all passes, in five years, again, expect to hear cries for more spending to solve our phantom highway and bridge crisis. It is long past time to shift more of the responsibility for highways and bridges to the states, where the costs and benefits to users can be better evaluated.
Using an objective and standard engineering measure of highway surface conditions provided by the Department of Transportation, I calculated, conservatively, the percentage of highways and roads in poor condition in each state in 2014 and 2018 (the most recent data available). In contrast to broad general statements about crumbling infrastructure, the data show only modest changes during this period.
Rural and urban interstates showed small improvements. In 2018, less than 2 percent of rural and 4.5 percent of urban interstates were in poor condition. About 3.5 percent of rural freeways (which are not interstates) and less than 6 percent of rural “main roads” were in poor condition. Main roads in urban areas remain the biggest problem, with about 23 percent in poor condition, but even this shows a small improvement from 2014.
Still, large differences between states remain. For example, in 2018, New Hampshire and Arizona had less than 1 and 2 percent of urban interstates in poor condition, respectively. Hawaii and California
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