Four of the best-performing state highway systems in the nation over the past three years have been in the Southeast, while California and New York, two of the biggest, have among the poorest-performing, according to the 27th annual report on the subject by the nonprofit Reason Foundation, whose areas of research include infrastructure.

The top five are Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Connecticut. The bottom also included Alaska, Hawaii and Washington. Virginia benefitted from good rural pavement conditions, low fatality rates, a relatively small percentage of deficient bridges, and low highway costs, according to the report, which will be published Thursday. 

Reason grades the conditions of states’ roads and bridges on multiple criteria that compare state highway system budgets with system performance. States with high ratings typically have better-than-average system conditions, which are good for road users — along with relatively low per-mile expenditures, which are good for taxpayers.

The current results were based on 2020 for road data, the last year when complete data was available. 

Nationally, the study found that just 21 states improved the condition of their roads and bridges in 2020. However, Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the study, said that states had made incremental improvements in the past two decades in the quality and safety of roads and bridges.

Highway spending was slightly lower in 2020 than in 2019 due to reduced expenditures in three categories — capital and bridge spending, highway maintenance, and administrative costs. The pandemic was not a factor in 2020 performance because states had already locked in their highway budgets, Feigenbaum said.

The top-performing states tend to be a mix of high-population and low-population states that lean both urban and rural, Reason said. Very rural, low-population states may have a slight advantage. Though North Dakota has led the rankings for the past four years, this year Virginia ranked first.

At the other end of the rankings are Alaska, New York, Hawaii, California and Washington. Despite the slight edge for very rural, low-population states, two of the five worst-performing states rank in the bottom 11 in population.

A number of states with large populations and/or large metro areas fared well: Virginia (first), North Carolina (second), Tennessee (third), Georgia (fourth), Missouri (11th) and Texas (19th).

Certain states spend significantly more than the national average. This spending may be justified if these states perform well in other categories, according to the researchers. But some of the states that spent the most money were the worst performers, they noted.

A number of the deficiencies are geographically concentrated. For example, more than one-quarter of poorly maintained interstate highway mileage is just in California, Colorado and Alaska. More than 25% of the urban interstate mileage in poor condition is focused in California, New York, Louisiana and Hawaii.

Approximately 30% of the rural arterial mileage in poor condition is in just three states: Hawaii, Rhode Island and Alaska. In addition, five states occupy more than quarter of the nation’s poorly maintained urban arterial primary mileage.

Approximately 26% of the urban arterial primary mileage considered in poor condition is in just five states: New York, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Rhode Island and California. 

Even with COVID’s impact on commuting patterns, commuters in nine states spent more than 30 hours annually stuck in peak-hour traffic congestion. They are New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Rhode Island, Illinois, California, Delaware and Connecticut. That was a function of bad congestion in the first three months of the year before the pandemic hit, Feigenbaum said.

In addition, nine states have reported that more than 10% of their bridges are “structurally deficient.” They are West Virginia, Iowa, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Maine, North Dakota and Michigan. 

Urban fatality rates continued to worsen, with 25 states having urban fatality rates of 1 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled or higher, the report found.

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