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How bad are America's highways? Study shows worsening conditions

The US made incremental progress for decades, but the trend has deteriorated.

The US isn't keeping up with motorists' demands on the highway system.

Pete Seaward/Getty Images

If you're reading this from North Dakota, Virginia or Missouri, congratulations: Believe it or not, your states have the highest-performing US highway systems in the entire country. If you think things are bad, try a stint in New Jersey, Alaska or Rhode Island, which ranked as the states home to the worst US highway systems.

A new study from the Reason Foundation looked at the US highway system as a whole and by state to determine which states are home to the most efficient and cost-effective highways. Meanwhile, the study also took a dive into some of the biggest problems the US faces. Overall, things are not in good shape.

Although the top three states house the most efficient and cost-effective highway systems, pavement conditions on both urban and rural highways has declined. Traffic fatalities are up and traffic congestion has increased since the previous report. This year's study uses state data from 2016 -- the most recent data on file -- and traffic congestion and bridge data from 2017.

Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the Annual Highway Report and assistant director of transportation at Reason Foundation, said in the study that the US showed incremental improvements in the highway system overall for decades, but in recent years, it's fallen behind substantially. The only area that showed an improvement was a decrease in structurally deficient bridges. In other words, states have replaced bridges that can't handle traffic like they used to.

Reason Study US Highway efficiency study rankings

Green is good, red is bad.

Reason Study

You may say the problem is money, but the study shows that likely not the final answer. Despite spending more than any other state per mile of highway, New Jersey ranks dead last in 50th place for urban traffic and pavement conditions. On the topic of just pavement condition alone, urban highways with pavement in poor condition increased in 29 out of all 50 states. One-third of the poor conditions can be found in just five states, however: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and New York. For those states with less metropolitan areas, it's not all smooth sailing either. Conditions of rural highways fell to their lowest point since 2000. If the US ever needed a kick in the pants to fix its road infrastructure problems, now is likely the time.

These issues are what $139 billion worth of funds spent in 2016 buys motorists. The figure is actually down from $145 billion spent in 2015. However, it's important to note a lot of these awful statistics is largely associated with the bottom 10 states.

"Towards the bottom of the rankings, you have highly populated states, like last-place New Jersey, along with Massachusetts, New York, and California to a lesser extent, that are spending a lot but often failing to keep up with traffic congestion and road maintenance," Feigenbaum said. Another problem are lower-population states with high administrative costs. Full funds often don't even reach the roads. The study is talking about you, Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii and Alaska.

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