Study: Half of urban interstates are clogged

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Nearly 52 percent of U.S. urban interstates are congested, and traffic fatality rates are up slightly, but road surface and bridge conditions have improved, according to the Reason Foundation’s latest annual highway performance report.

“Gridlock isn’t going away,” says the study’s lead author, David T. Hartgen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “States are going to have to prioritize and direct their transportation money to projects specifically designed to reduce congestion if we are going to reverse this troubling trend.”

Drivers in California, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina are stuck in the worst traffic, with more than 70 percent of urban interstates in those states qualifying as congested, the study shows.

The Reason Foundation study measured the performance of state-owned roads and highways from 1984 to 2005 in 12 different categories, including traffic fatalities, congestion, pavement condition, bridge condition, highway maintenance and administrative costs, to determine each state’s ranking and cost-effectiveness.

The report found that fatality rates per 100 million vehicle miles vary significantly from state to state, from 0.79 in Massachusetts to 2.256 in Montana. The national average was 1.453 fatalities, up slightly from 1.440 in 2004.

The study does find some good news for drivers: The percentage of roads in “poor condition” fell sharply for both interstates and major rural roads. Since 1998, the percentage of poor urban interstate mileage has been reduced by 31 percent, the study says. The number of bridges deemed deficient, meaning they are eligible for federal repair dollars, also fell slightly in 2005.

In the overall rankings, North Dakota and South Carolina took the top spots in highway performance for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s gridlocked highways, poor pavement conditions and high repair costs put the state last for the eighth consecutive year.

Joining New Jersey in the bottom five are Hawaii, Rhode Island, New York and Alaska. Rounding out the top five are Kansas, New Mexico and Montana.

Of the nation’s most populous states, the top performers are Georgia (6th overall), Texas (15th) and Ohio (16th). “The big states that score well have been able to achieve needed improvements and adequate maintenance at relatively low costs,” Hartgen says.

The full 16th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems, with detailed information for each state, is available on Reason’s website. Reason’s 2006 study showing how congested each city in the country will be in 2030 and how many new lane miles are needed to eliminate congestion is also on the website.