Commentary

New Jersey Construction Union Tries to Convince Taxpayers that More Expensive, Poor-quality Roads are a Bargain

New Jersey’s roadways rank 48th in Reason Foundation’s 21st Annual Highway Report. But rather than trying to fix the state’s out of control spending and numerous miles of poor pavement condition, an industry union commissioned a hit piece to argue that Reason’s study, and not New Jersey’s spending, is the problem. While states that rank poorly, don’t like our report, we have never seen anything like this.

Reason Foundation’s/Hartgen Group’s Annual Highway Report measures the condition and cost-effectiveness of each state’s roadway network. All of our data is reported by that state to the United States Department of Transportation and audited for accuracy. While states that perform poorly tend to complain that the report is biased against high population or dense states, high performing states include the more populated/denser (Georgia, Ohio, Texas) and the less populated /less dense (Nebraska, South Carolina, Wyoming) rank highly.

The state of New Jersey consistently has one of the worst state highway networks in the country. New Jersey spends more per centerline mile than any other state and the condition of its roads is awful. New Jersey ranks poorly on disbursements, 50th on Capital and Bridge, 50th on Maintenance and 48th on Administrative. But it also ranks poorly in almost every other category. It is 46th in Rural Arterial Pavement Condition, 46th in Urban Interstate Pavement Condition, 41st in Freeway Congestion, 36th in Deficient Bridges, and 31st in Rural Interstate Pavement Condition. The only categories in which it ranks above average are Fatality Rate, 5th (lowest), and Narrow Bridges, 19th.

States that spend a lot per capita will not rank near the bottom if their road networks are in good condition. Further, states that spend very little per capita will not rank near the top if their road networks are in poor condition. A state’s ranking is determined by both the condition of its pavement and its spending level. Many states that rank poorly actually spend very little money. Alaska ranks 16th in overall disbursements yet ranks 49th overall in system quality. Louisiana ranks 25th in overall disbursements yet ranks 40th in overall quality. Arkansas ranks 9th in overall disbursements but ranks 35th in system quality. All three states rank far below average despite spending less than average because their system quality (pavement condition, congestion, safety) is way below par. The best performing states have long been the states with the best system quality and the lowest costs.

But when you have an agenda, why let facts get in the way? New Jersey’s powerful construction unions have decided that there is not enough construction work in the state. And they want taxpayers to pony up the money so more workers are needed and the unions become stronger. But that’s not what’s good for taxpayers. And it’s not what the data suggests New Jersey needs to do.

Late last month the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative (ELEC) contracted with Peter Phillips, a labor economist at the University of Utah, to write a study refuting the Annual Highway Report. Phillips’ study had some interesting conclusions that seem to stem from a misunderstanding of our methods.

The ELEC report makes two major mistakes:

  • First, it fails to mention that New Jersey spends 50% of its roadway funding on debt. New Jersey has borrowed heavily over the years and now must make enormous interest payments. It is not the taxpayers fault that New Jersey officials have made poor investment decisions for 25 years.
  • Second, it assumes that the Highway Report tracks only capital spending. But the report actually tracks all types of spending (maintenance, operations, miscellaneous). These two mistakes significantly affect the data.

Further the ELEC paper makes a number of other assumptions that are just plain wrong:

  • The ELEC report focuses mainly on critiquing our metric of centerline miles versus lane-miles. It claims that lane-miles are the more accurate metric. But building roadways has numerous costs beyond actually laying asphalt. Preliminary Engineering is required on all projects. Right-of way acquisition and miscellaneous costs such as movement of utility wires are present in projects of all sizes. Centerline-miles is the more commonly used metric.
  • Even using lane-miles, New Jersey’s spending ranks among the highest in the country. New Jersey ranks poorly in total spending regardless of metric.
  • The ELEC report says several times that it is wrong to compare one-lane country roads to turnpikes. We agree and we never make those comparisons. We only measure state-controlled roads. One-lane roads are primarily locally-controlled while turnpikes are funded by tolling and do not need gas tax revenue, unlike most other state roadways. Our report compares state-controlled miles to state-controlled miles. We do not measure county-roads, city-roads or local roads.
  • The ELEC report correctly points out that it is more expensive to build roadways in urban areas than rural areas. But, it is rarely 12 times more expensive to build a roadway in an urban area than in a rural area. Further South Carolina, a low-cost state, has both urban and rural areas. Costs to build roadways in rural areas of New Jersey should be comparable to the costs to build roadways in rural areas of South Carolina. But they are not, and if the ELEC report was really concerned about an accurate apples to apples comparison, that is what it would measure.
  • The ELEC critique is that more traffic means that highways have to be built to a higher standard. That’s true but here’s the thing: New Jersey roads seldom have the highest traffic counts in the country. Let’s examine a busy urban expressway stretch in Georgia, I-75/I-85 through downtown Atlanta, with one in New Jersey, I-78 west of Newark. I-75/I-85 has 6 lanes in each direction and a total of 342,000 vehicles per day (measured in average annual daily traffic (AADT)). That’s an average of 28,500 vehicles per lane per day. I-78 near Newark and Elizabeth has 5 lanes in each direction and a total traffic count of 171,852. That’s an average of 17,185 vehicles per day. The 28,500 in Atlanta obviously exceeds the 17,185 near Newark. Yet despite spending more money on less used roads, New Jersey’s urban freeways rank 46th in pavement condition, while Georgia’s rank 4th. Many states, including those that spend less per mile than New Jersey have high traffic segments. Not only do other states spend less per lane-mile, but their systems are in much better shape.
  • Another ELEC critique is that New Jersey’s roads are more complex than other states. The ELEC study provides no support for this point. Some of the most complex projects are being built in states such as Georgia (24th in disbursements), North Carolina (3rd in disbursements) and Texas (23rd in disbursements). So apparently some states can build complex projects cost-effectively. New Jersey may be dense, but it is neither in the top 10 for population nor quickly growing. In fact most of the more complicated projects in New Jersey are on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike, both of which are funded by toll revenue not gas taxes.

New Jersey residents should take note of this study for what it is: an attempt to justify taking more money from New Jersey taxpayers.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. Feigenbaum has a diverse background researching and implementing transportation issues including revenue and finance, public-private partnerships, highways, transit, high-speed rail, ports, intelligent transportation systems, land use, and local policymaking.

Feigenbaum is involved with various transportation organizations. He is a member of the Transportation Research Board Bus Transit Systems and Intelligent Transportation Systems Committees. He is Vice President of Programming for the Transportation and Research Forum Washington Chapter, a reviewer for the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) and a contributor to Planetizen. He has appeared on NBC Nightly News and CNBC. His work has been featured in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Prior to joining Reason, Feigenbaum handled transportation issues on Capitol Hill for Representative Lynn Westmoreland. He earned his Master's degree in Transportation Planning with a focus in Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.