U.S. Highways in Trouble? It Could Be Worse . . .

Wed October 30, 2013 - National Edition

The highway budgeting process in our nation’s capital is broken, and state coffers for highway work are not exactly spilling over, but things could be worse. Consider Saskatchewan.

The western Canadian province is a long and lovely vertical slice of Canada above the states of Montana and North Dakota. It is about 250,000 square miles of plains and farming country.

In the 2013 highway construction season, Saskatchewan highway authorities spent some $280 million (Canadian and U.S. dollar values are more or less equivalent) on highway construction and reconstruction. That included 170 miles of repaving and 45 miles of rural highway upgrades. Unfortunately, $280 million was not enough.

While motorcycling in late August across the heartland of Saskatchewan, I repeatedly encountered broken pavement and stretches of intermittently paved and unpaved sections of roadway. A half-mile of one “highway” became—without any warning whatsoever—a mere country road of deep, loose gravel, a biker’s nightmare.

In the U.S., the term “highway” is not as loosely defined. The public expectation is that a “highway” is a paved, properly marked, and reasonably maintained road. Consider an American plains state, Wyoming. It is about 40 percent the size of Saskatchewan and its highways seem 100 percent better. Thanks to federal and state funding, the highways don’t disappoint.

But that may change. Because federal highway appropriations are gummed up, Wyoming lawmakers in the last legislative session raised the state gasoline tax 10 cents to generate another $47 million a year for highway work. Wyoming DOT Assistant Chief Engineer Gregg Frederick said the goal is to “maintain the highway system in the condition it currently exists today.”

Just maintain? Static highway programs are like any other status quo policy: They aren’t progressive. Consequently, despite the new taxes, Wyoming is likely to fall further and further behind in quality highway construction. And where will that lead? Visit Saskatchewan.