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The state of our roads

| Sunday, July 1, 2007

Pennsylvania's state highways aren't all bad -- at least compared to West Virginia's.

For example, you're less likely to die driving on a road in our commonwealth than in West Virginia.

And compared to the Mountain State, the Keystone State has fewer miles of interstate in poor condition -- urban and rural.

Despite comparative advantages such as these, however, when it comes to the overall performance and condition of our state road system, tired old Pennsylvania is out-ranked by poor West Virginia -- and 34 other states, including Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.

For the record, Pennsylvania is ranked No. 36 in the Reason Foundation's 16th annual report on the performance of state highways systems. It ranks states based on how much they spend on roads, the condition of their pavement and bridges, traffic congestion, accident rates and percentage of narrow rural lanes.

West Virginia is 25th. Ohio is 16th. The best are North Dakota, South Carolina and Kansas; the worst New York, Alaska and dead-last New Jersey.

Believe it or not, the cost-effectiveness study found that in 2005 America's roads improved in a number of categories. Fatalities rose slightly. But fewer interstates, primary rural roads and bridges were in poor condition. Interstate congestion declined slightly, though clogged urban interstates are a serious problem.

The lead author of the Reason study, transportation expert David Hartgen, says the report takes the taxpayers' point of view: Spending less per mile for roads and still getting good performance ratings earns a higher ranking.

Hartgen has visited Pittsburgh. But since he's not personally suffered at the hands of PennDOT, no matter how hard you try to convince him that our roads are the worst in North America, he remains dispassionate when assessing the state's data and ranking.

"The report is not intended to scare," Hartgen says. "It's not intended to point fingers. It's simply intended to say, 'Look, here is where we stand relative to other states. This helps us to focus where the issues are and allows us to talk about what to do about them.' "

Basically, Pennsylvania is average -- average spending begets average road conditions. Our No. 36 ranking, Hartgen says shockingly, is actually not bad at all for a mature, high-priced, truck-and-traffic-battered state saddled with a crazy terrain, a variety of soil types and a cold, wet climate cursed with -- you guessed it -- a nasty freeze-thaw cycle.

Pittsburghers don't need an academic study to tell them their state's highways don't measure up to West Virginia's or Ohio's. As soon as our tires leave PennDOT's turf, we usually see, hear and feel the difference.

Meanwhile, no one who's passed a kindergarten civics class really believes throwing another $500 million a year at state roads -- as Harrisburg is preparing to do -- will help us catch Ohio. But just why is Ohio a decent 16th and we're a middling 36th• Why are our interstates, bridges, rural roads and fatality rates not as good?

Hartgen isn't sure. "I wouldn't necessarily say it is management," he says. "Both states have been dealt difficult hands. Both have some large cities and large budgets, so perhaps the Pennsylvania crowd might benefit from a visit to Columbus."

Great idea, professor. But our crowd might want to travel from Harrisburg by plane.

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