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Think Tank Uses Metrics to Rate NJ's Highways Last in U.S.; PA Ranks 39th

Wed December 08, 2021 - Northeast Edition
Philadelphia Inquirer

Well, this is not likely to make the official New Jersey travel guide:

The state ranks 50th in the nation in highway performance and cost, with Trenton spending $1.14 million per lane mile on construction and maintenance for relatively rough pavement and high urban traffic congestion.

The analysis was made by the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation and published in its 26th Annual Highway Report.

In its analysis, the nonpartisan think tank evaluates state highway systems on 13 metrics, including per-mile spending on construction, maintenance and administration, in addition to the condition of pavement and bridges, traffic fatalities and congestion.

According to the free-market foundation's report, New Jersey commuters spend about 86 hours per year in traffic. Across the river in Pennsylvania, that state fared a bit better in the analysis, ranking 39th overall for the quality of its highways and bridges relative to construction and maintenance costs.

Pennsylvania spends $102,329 per mile of state-controlled road, and drivers on urban stretches of highway spend an average of about 36 hours a year in traffic jams, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted.

"The main takeaway for both New Jersey and Pennsylvania is that compared to other parts of the country, drivers in those states ought to be able to get better highways or pay less for them," explained lead author Baruch Feigenbaum, senior transportation policy analyst of Reason, in speaking with the Philadelphia news source.

The Reason report comes as the recently signed federal infrastructure act will send $110 billion in new spending, above the usual formula-based appropriation, to state DOTs for work on roads and bridges over the next five years.

Results in the latest analysis are based on 2019 data that state transportation departments reported to the federal government, and information on congestion from the transportation analytics company INRIX, which aggregates GPS data.

In general, overall rankings favor more sparsely populated states, though Georgia and Virginia, which have significant urban areas, performed well.

The top-rated states in the 2021 report are North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Utah and Kansas.

Dense Population One Factor in NJ's Rank

New Jersey roads and highways take a pounding, particularly from trucks, as the state is the most densely populated in the nation, with a large volume of traffic.

New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) officials question Reason's conclusions.

"Over the years, NJDOT has raised several discrepancies in the way in which the Reason Foundation presents data pertaining to New Jersey," said agency spokesperson Steve Schapiro, noting the department is still analyzing the latest report.

The Inquirer reported that among the points the state has raised in the past is that the think tank's reports to Washington include borrowing costs and state expenditures for arterial roads controlled by local and county governments, which inflate overall spending.

Costs in the Garden State have dropped sharply since the 2016 Reason report, which noted it spent about $2 million per mile in 2014.

On the bright side, though, New Jersey has the fourth-lowest highway fatality rate in this year's report.

The costs for some states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, could be affected by topography and weather, the Reason report allowed. Feigenbaum said labor and regulatory costs for highway builders are likely higher, too.

"The Northeast is an expensive neighborhood," he told the Philadelphia newspaper, but added New Jersey still spends much more per mile than densely packed regional peers, such as Maryland, New York and Massachusetts.

Pennsylvania Identifies Potential Funding Sources

Officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) point out, by way of context, that that state has one of the largest state-maintained highway and bridge networks in the nation with about 40,000 miles of roadway and more than 25,400 bridges. In addition, it reduced the number of bridges in poor condition to 2,443 from 6,034 in 2008.

"We are grateful for the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will bring $4 billion in new highway and bridge funds to Pennsylvania over five years," said Alexis Campbell, PennDOT's press secretary, in a statement to the Inquirer. "That investment, coupled with state-level solutions are critical to helping us build for the future."

Among those, she said, are new sources of funding proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf's Transportation Revenue Options Commission (TROC), which include congestion-based pricing on urban highways as well as replacements for the gasoline tax, which pays 78 percent of Pennsylvania's highway and bridge costs. The tax's growth as a revenue source has stalled in recent years with higher fuel economy and an increase in electric vehicles on the road.

The Wolf administration also is considering fees for package delivery to homes and offices, and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. Longer term, the revenue commission has suggested the state should move toward a user fee based on miles driven.

Pilot programs for mileage-based fees are operating in several states, including Oregon, Utah and Virginia. The federal infrastructure act funds a study on the feasibility of implementing such a payment scheme nationally.

"The gas tax just is not going to be viable," Reason's Feigenbaum told the Inquirer. "I do think most states will [eventually] go to a mileage-based user fee system."

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