New Jersey Tries to Make Excuses for Expensive State Highways in Poor Condition
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New Jersey Tries to Make Excuses for Expensive State Highways in Poor Condition

Taxpayers get traffic congestion, poor pavement conditions, deficient bridges and a big bill for state roads

Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report, which found New Jersey’s state-controlled highway system ranks 48th out 50 states in cost-effectiveness and performance, has resonated with New Jersey’s taxpayers who have long complained of bumpy pavement and gridlocked roads and highways.

The Annual Highway Report measures the condition and cost-effectiveness of state-owned roads in numerous categories, including pavement condition on urban and rural Interstates, urban traffic congestion, deficient bridges, unsafe narrow lanes, traffic fatalities, total spending and administrative costs.

With a proposed increase to the state gas tax putting New Jersey’s roads under new scrutiny, Jamie Fox, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, recently commented on the Annual Highway Report. Mr. Fox wrote, “Without the benefit of having the numbers the Reason Foundation used to base its calculations, there is no way to independently review its findings.”

That’s strange. Our Annual Highway Report is based on data that New Jersey, and other states, provide themselves to the federal government. And we’ve readily shared the report’s data with state transportation departments and members of the media across the country. The full Annual Highway Report is here (.pdf). Many of the tables we used are publicly available on the Federal Highway Administration’s website. Some of the key tables are HM-10 (mileage), SF-3 (Revenues for State-Administered Highways) and SF-4 (Disbursements for State-Administered Highways).

Mr. Fox also wrote, “NJDOT has jurisdiction over only 6 percent of the entire roadway network in the state.” That’s right, and the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report ranks New Jersey based only on the roads the state actually controls. And that should be even more worrying to New Jersey’s taxpayers: Despite the small size of the state-controlled highway system, New Jersey still has big trouble taking care of it. The state ranks near the bottom in poor pavement condition – 46th in urban Interstate pavement condition, 46th in rural primary road pavement condition – and 36th in deficient bridges.

New Jersey’s state government controls just over 3,300 miles of highway. Texas and North Carolina, for comparison, each control more than 20 times as much – over 80,000 miles of highway each. Texas ranks 11th in overall highway performance and cost-effectiveness, while North Carolina ranks 20th, and New Jersey ranks 48th.

Mr. Fox takes issue with how the state’s transportation spending is reported:

New Jersey gives out nearly $330 million a year in local transportation aid to counties and municipalities. This helps local government take care of local roads without having to raise property taxes. The Reason Foundation counts the spending we give to local government but doesn’t count all the miles of local roads that are repaired or built.

Like it does for county and municipal aid, the Reason Foundation also counts the investments made to maintain and run New Jersey Transit as part of our highway spending but gives the state no benefit for that spending. New Jersey is the only state that operates a statewide transit system, so including transit expenditures into highway construction costs is both inaccurate and unfair.

The report’s spending totals are pulled directly from numbers the state of New Jersey provided to the Federal Highway Administration under the category of “Disbursements For State-Administered Highways – 2012.” This federal table, used in our report, shows the breakdown that New Jersey provided for its spending on “capital outlays for roads and bridges; maintenance and highway services; administration research and planning; highway law enforcement and safety; interest; bond retirement; reserves for highway work; and reserves for debt service.”

None of those categories include “local transportation aid” or “statewide transit system.” If the state is claiming it mistakenly included local aid and mass transit spending in clearly defined state highway categories, New Jersey should correct the data it provided to FHWA.

Mr. Fox makes another claim:

The Reason Foundation uses a centerline mile as its denominator. A centerline mile measures the total length of a given road from Point A to Point B, but it doesn’t measure how many actual lanes of highway are going from Point A to Point B.

When was the last time you were on a single-lane highway in New Jersey? There are some, but not many. When we spend money to maintain or build a multiple lane highway, the Reason Foundation acts as if all that spending is to construct a single lane of highway, not the multiple lanes that are actually built.

Lane-miles are part of the report’s calculations. In fact, lane miles are inherent in calculating many of the report’s rankings, including traffic congestion and pavement condition. The Annual Highway Report clearly states: “The average number of lanes per mile is 2.40 lanes, but a few states (New Jersey, Florida, California and Massachusetts) manage significantly wider roads, averaging more than 3.0 lanes per mile.” The report goes on to detail the miles, lane miles and the average number of lanes for all 50 states. These factors are then used to adjust our figures to account for wider roads in some states, like New Jersey. So if New Jersey’s big spending were resulting in smoother pavement and less traffic congestion across many lanes, the state’s overall ranking and its rankings in those individual categories would be better. Instead, New Jersey ranks 31st or worse in nine of the 11 categories, and 41st or worse in seven of 11 categories.

It is incorrect, but let’s test the claim anyway – if the spending per mile metric is punishing New Jersey for having highways that are six or eight lanes wide, as Mr. Fox alleges, then it would make sense that other states with wide highways would suffer too. But that is not the case. California, home to many of the busiest and widest highways in the country, spends $500,000 per mile. New Jersey spends four times that – $2 million per mile. New Jersey spends three times as much as Massachusetts ($675,000 per mile), three-and-a-half times more than Florida ($572,000 per mile), four times as much as New York ($462,000 per mile), and 12 times more than Texas ($157,000 per mile), which is home to six of the 20 most populous cities in America.

Mr. Fox apparently agrees with us regarding the relatively poor condition of the state’s roads, since he makes no comments regarding our data on road conditions like pavement condition and congestion. He does mention other possible causes of the state’s poor road conditions, including age, truck traffic and harsh winters. But somehow, other states with heavy traffic, harsh winters and old systems manage to beat New Jersey.

The Annual Highway Report has been published for over 20 years. It gives taxpayers an idea of how much bang they are getting for their transportation bucks. Over those two decades we’ve seen the states that rank highest tend to produce good road conditions at relatively low costs. States ranked in the middle of the pack can be average across all categories, or, they overcome spending more than the national average by producing good road conditions with that spending. Wisconsin and Oklahoma, for example, both increased their spending and rocketed up 16 spots in the report’s overall rankings by using that spending to better their pavement conditions.

Meanwhile, there’s no escaping the conclusion that New Jersey spends a lot of money on its state-administered highways and delivers poor performance in return. The key question now is what will New Jersey do about it?

David Hartgen is senior fellow at Reason Foundation, president of The Hartgen Group and emeritus transportation professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. They are co-authors of the latest Annual Highway Report.