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Motorists crisscrossing Nebraska this summer may be heartened to know that the Cornhusker State's highway system is ranked sixth-best in the nation, according to the 20th annual Highway Report by a California think tank.
The report was released Tuesday, just before the Fourth of July, which AAA Nebraska says is the biggest holiday for travel every year. More than 34 million Americans were expected to go by car, including thousands following Interstate 80 across Nebraska and Iowa.
Fred Zwonechek, the Nebraska highway safety administrator, called I-80 “the nation's Main Street” because of all the cross-country traffic it carries.
The Highway Report by the Reason Foundation of Los Angeles uses data that states provide to the federal government to produce its annual rankings. The report considers road conditions as well as spending levels to determine an overall performance and cost-effectiveness ranking.
Nebraska achieved its No. 6 ranking partly because its rural Interstate pavement was best in the nation, but also because it spends less per mile than most states. Nebraska's administrative costs per mile, in particular, were fifth-lowest.
Iowa ranked 33rd overall.
Randy Peters, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads, said he was “delighted” with the report's results, which were based on data from 2009.
“We are pleased that the Reason Foundation's analysis validates NDOR's efforts to provide good value for Nebraskans' investment in the road system,” Peters said. “It is always challenging to compare one state to another when the data being collected is never a simple 'apples-to-apples' comparison. Given the inherent challenges involved with that, we think the report is fair.”
Nebraska ranked 23rd in fatality rate, 27th in deficient bridges, 27th in urban Interstate pavement in poor condition, and 18th in urban Interstate congestion.
“Nebraska spends less than 10 percent of the annual operating budget on administration, so we are very efficient,” Peters said. “On the other hand, the change in ranking year to year has as much to do with fluctuations in the other states' performance as it has to do with our own.”
The state's extreme weather conditions contribute to the maintenance problems faced by the Roads Department, he said.
“It is not just the number of heavy truckloads that deteriorate highways. Environmental factors also play a major role,” Peters said. “Nebraska's cold winters and hot summers account for much of the pavement distress.”
Overall, the nation's road conditions show slight improvement over last year, with North Dakota, Kansas and Wyoming having the best, most cost-effective highway systems. Alaska, Rhode Island, Hawaii and California have the worst highway systems, according to the report.
The Highway Report measures the condition and cost-effectiveness of state-owned roads in 11 categories, including pavement condition, urban traffic congestion, deficient bridges, unsafe narrow lanes, traffic fatalities, total spending per mile of state roads and administrative costs per mile.
Nationwide there was small progress in every category except for pavement condition on rural arterial roads. These improvements were achieved at a time when per-mile expenditures dropped slightly. Despite receiving stimulus funding from the federal government in 2009, the report said spending on state roads decreased slightly, by 0.6 percent, when compared with 2008.
“It's hard to believe it when you hit a pothole or see a bridge in Washington collapse, but the nation's roads are getting better,” said David Hartgen, author of the study and emeritus transportation professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “There are still several states struggling and plenty of problem areas. But you (can) make the case that, overall, America's roads and bridges have never been in better shape.”
Among the states plagued with problems are New Jersey and California. New Jersey spends $1.2 million per mile on its state-controlled roads. That's nearly twice as much as the $679,000 per mile spent in California, the next-biggest-spending state.
North Carolina, home to the nation's largest state highway system, spends $44,000 per mile on its roads. South Carolina spends just $31,000 — the lowest per-mile rate in the nation, according to the report.
Not only are California's Interstates full of potholes, they are also jammed; 80 percent of the state's urban Interstates are congested. Minnesota has the next-highest percentage of gridlocked Interstates, with 78 percent of urban Interstates deemed congested.
Massachusetts had the lowest traffic fatality rate, while Montana had the highest.