Where America’s worst roads are, and how much they’re costing us

Potholes big as Texas. The shoddy state of the nation's roads cost the average driver $515 in extra operation and maintenance costs on their car, according to an analysis. CREDIT: Daniel Lobo/Flickr.)

WASHINGTON — The shoddy state of the nation’s roads cost average drivers $515 in extra operation and maintenance costs on their cars, according to the latest analysis from TRIP, a national transportation research group. Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund is about to become insolvent, and congressional lawmakers can’t agree on a temporary fix that experts say is nothing more than a band-aid, and an inadequate one at that.

The numbers from TRIP show that 28 percent of the nation’s major roadways — interstates, freeways and major arterial roadways in urban areas — are in “poor” condition. This means they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced — they need to be completely rebuilt.

Those cracks and potholes put a lot of extra wear and tear on your car. They wear your tires away faster, and they decrease your gas mileage too. All of these factors go into that calculation of $515 in extra annual cost, above and beyond what you’d pay to maintain your car if the roads were in good conditions.

But as you might expect, there’s a lot of variation in road conditions and costs at the state level. First, let’s take a look at road quality:

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The worst roads in America are in Washington, D.C., where 92 percent of the major roadways are rated as “poor.” Conversely, zero percent of D.C.’s roads received a “good” rating in the Federal Highway Administration data analyzed by TRIP. There is almost literally not a single good road in D.C.

Among the states, the worst roads are in California where 51 percent of the highways are rated poor. Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan all have “poor” ratings of 40 percent or more.

And while everybody loves to make fun of Florida, the Sunshine State actually has the smallest percentage of bad roads in the nation — only 7 percent. Nevada, Missouri, Minnesota and Arkansas round out the top 5.

I might have expected weather and latitude to play a big role in road quality, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Some northern states like Minnesota have great quality scores, while some southern ones, like Texas, don’t look too hot. And what’s going on in Hawaii?

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Drivers in six states plus the District of Columbia can expect to pay well over $600 a year in extra vehicle upkeep costs due to bad roads. For drivers in Oklahoma and California, the costs add up to over $760 per year. People in most states are paying around $400 or $500 extra. In two states — Minnesota and Tennessee — these extra costs add up to less than $300.

One main reason why our roads are in such bad shape is that we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund to keep up with infrastructure needs. And a reason we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund is that the federal gasoline tax has remained at 1993 levels.

Raising the tax is politically unpopular for the obvious reason that nobody likes tax hikes. But these numbers make it clear that nobody’s getting a free ride. “Public agencies are the people who build and maintain the highway system,” Rocky Moretti, TRIP’s Director of Policy and Research told me. “But when it’s in lousy shape, it becomes a private cost.”

Rather than paying our road maintenance costs up front, we’re paying for our bad roads in the cost of the damage they do to our vehicles year-in, year-out.

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That $515 in extra costs the average driver pays is really nothing more than a hidden pothole tax. By comparison, the average driver is paying only $97 a year in federal gas taxes, according to the American Transportation Builder’s Association. And the longer we wait to fix our roads, the steeper that pothole tax becomes.

Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.