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North Dakota’s highways are in the best condition for the least amount of money, according to an annual report released this month.
North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina have the country’s most cost-effective highway systems, according to new research.
The 26th Annual Highway Report, released this month by the nonprofit Reason Foundation, ranks the condition and cost effectiveness of state-controlled highways in 13 categories, including deficient bridges, traffic fatalities and congestion, and spending and administrative costs per mile.
The report, based on data from 2019 and 2020, “rates state highway systems on cost versus quality” by comparing each state’s annual highway budget with its overall performance, according to the libertarian think tank.
Within those metrics, a high ranking indicates highways in good condition at a relatively low cost per mile, Baruch Feigenbaum, the report’s lead author, said in a statement.
“States need to ensure their highway spending produces safer roads, smoother pavement, fewer deficient bridges, and less traffic congestion,” he said. “The states with the best overall rankings maintain better-than-average highways with relatively efficient spending per mile.”
Overall, states with large rural areas performed slightly better than their urban counterparts, with North Dakota (ranked first), Kentucky (No. 4), Utah (No. 6), Kansas (No. 7), Idaho (No. 8), South Dakota (No. 9) and Tennessee (No. 10) all placing in the top 10. But some states with large urban centers, including Virginia (No. 2) and North Carolina (No. 5), also fared well.
The differences between those states are more than geographical, researchers noted. “Terrain, climate, truck volumes, urbanization, system age, budget priorities, unit cost differences, state budget circumstances, and management/maintenance philosophies...are all affecting overall performance,” they wrote.
For example, North Dakota—ranked first overall for the fourth consecutive year—fared well in multiple categories, including total disbursements per mile, maintenance disbursements per mile, admin disbursements per mile, rural interstate pavement condition, urban interstate pavement condition and rural fatality rate. But the state performed poorly in other areas, including a 42nd-place ranking for structurally deficient bridges, which aligns with its annual spending on capital and bridge expenses ($21,829 per mile, 11th lowest in the country and well below the national average of $41,850).
By contrast, New Jersey, the last state in the rankings, reached the top half in only five of 13 categories, including rural interstate pavement condition, where it tied for first place with a handful of other states.
In general, researchers said, the country’s highway system is “incrementally improving” in nearly every category, but those improvements are happening unevenly. The majority of problems with highways are concentrated in the bottom 10 states—and more money is not helping to fix them.
For example, roughly a quarter of the rural interstate mileage in poor condition is concentrated in three states (Alaska, Colorado and Washington). And the three states with the highest per-mile spending—Massachusetts ($345,947), New York ($373,555) and New Jersey ($1.1 million)—all rank in the bottom 10 overall.
Nationwide, overall highway spending is increasing. States spent roughly $157.8 billion on state-owned roads in 2019, a 3.9% increase from 2018, the last time the report was published. That figure includes funding for capital and bridge projects, maintenance, administrative costs, highway law enforcement and safety, interest and bond retirement.
Notably, congestion decreased in an overwhelming majority of states from 2019 to 2020, most likely due to an overall decline in road travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. Forty-six states saw their overall congestion improve, while drivers in four states—New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois and New York—still spent more than 50 hours in traffic annually, according to the data.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.