Taking a road trip this summer? Enjoy America’s crumbling infrastructure
Is there anything more American than the call of the open road? When I got my hands on a burnt-orange 2015 Corvette Stingray last month, my first thought was of a road trip from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.
In a country crisscrossed from sea to shining sea by some of the world’s longest and most famous roads, what could be more simple? Just point the car and go. The reality, however, is that the condition of many of America’s highways makes any such trip at the very least slow – and at worst, dangerous.
The US’s once gleaming interstate highway system is in crisis. The federal program that funds maintenance and improvements – the Highway Trust Fund – is set to expire on 31 July. Congress passed a five-week funding “patch” to extend the deadline, one of 34 it has passed in the last nine years. But if lawmakers don’t settle upon a more permanent solution, the US Department of Transportation says the fund will become insolvent before year’s end.
The consequences of this underinvestment are already being felt. Shortly after my trip a section of Interstate 10, close to my own route, collapsed into a dry riverbed between Palm Springs, California, and Phoenix, Arizona.
Congestion on America’s major urban highways costs the economy an estimated $101bn a year in wasted time and fuel, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The ASCE’s last infrastructure report graded US’s roads with a D, saying close to a third of the country’s 4m miles of roads were in poor or mediocre condition. The Federal Highway Administration estimates it would take $170bn a year to significantly improve conditions and performance.
What does that mean for the motorist who plans – like so many Americans – to go on a road trip this summer? More potholes, more congestion, more bridges closed and fewer safety improvements, says Rocky Moretti, director of policy and research for Trip, a transportation research organization.
“It’s absolutely critical that we address this transportation funding deficit,” he said. “The US currently has a $740bn backlog in improvements needed to restore the nation’s roads, highways and bridges to the level of condition and performance needed to meet the nation’s transportation demands.”
Building and maintaining roads takes years of planning and cooperation between government agencies, private contractors and various political entities. And getting the money has become increasingly difficult as the federal fuel tax – which helps put money into the Highway Trust Fund – has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993, with no political will to raise it.
Escape from New York
The bottom line is that no matter how cool the car, it is practically worthless without miles of smooth road upon which to drive it. The 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray has been described as the poor man’s Porsche. General Motors says the car will accelerate to 60mph from a dead stop in 3.8 seconds on its way to a top speed of 180mph. Driving that fast wasn’t an option, but I reckoned that flying along a seamless ribbon of asphalt at more or less legal highway speeds would be.
Such was not to be the case. Most of the tarmac between the Big Apple and the City of Angels is passable. But there were a few sections that were scarcely so. The trip began on the rough cobblestones of the Brooklyn waterfront, where going faster than about 30mph might have wrecked the car. The highways in New York City weren’t much better, and the car was subjected to roadways not unlike the surface of a dry riverbed as I nosed the car through midday traffic on the way out of town. There are several escape routes from the metropolitan area, including the rusty, crumbling Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey and the well-past-its-prime Tappan Zee bridge, north of the city, opened in 1955. I chose to brave the pockmarked no-man’s land of the Staten Island Expressway, swerving to avoid crooked stretches of concrete divider separating narrow travel lanes from mid-road construction projects.
Trip’s report says that 38% of the major urban roads in New York state and 40% in New Jersey are in poor condition. Based on the ride out of the city and into the Garden State, most of New York’s bad roads seemed to be right in the country’s largest, most affluent city. The New Jersey Turnpike was fine, but that was most likely because it’s a toll road with its own source of funding.
The concentration of poor roads in Delaware and Maryland dropped slightly, to 20% and 28% respectively. But Washington DC is a black hole of heavy congestion, its dark tentacles probing deep into the neighboring states. Trip says its roads are the worst in the nation, with a 92% poor rating. It certainly felt that way as we sat in traffic.
Virginia and North Carolina’s roads were much better, at 19% and 15%. From there it was on to Kentucky, which had a 14% poor roads rating and many well-tended arcs of asphalt swooping through lush, wooded hill country.
Since I was headed over to Utah to see the great Bonneville Salt Flats – the place where motorsports enthusiasts of all types go to watch people drive very fast in a straight line on its immense dry lake bed – I had to route my trip through Indiana and Illinois. The roads in those two states picked up more bad percentage points, at 22% and 27%. The trip picked up in Missouri, which scores a low 9% for bad roads, but by Kansas, where close to a quarter of the roads have issues, things slowed again. Neighboring Colorado, a state that seems to have a more solid economy, was even worse with 35% of roads in poor condition.
After miles of intermittent construction delays, Utah proved a driver’s dream. Part of Interstate 80 drops down from Wyoming, descending in grand, graceful curves through the mountains toward Salt Lake City and offering the chance to test the Corvette’s grip though high-speed turns.
West of Salt Lake City the interstate straightens out, and is good for a long blast across the surrounding white terrain. Luck was not on my side when I reached the salt flats. It had rained, so there was an inch of water on the salt. Driving on a soggy lake bed can lead to an expensive tow. My one chance to really put my foot down had been taken away from me.
Nevada’s Highway 93 made up for some of the disappointment. A scant 8% of Nevada’s roads were reported by Trip as being in poor condition. When I saw the shimmering strand of highway laid out before me across miles of open desert, I believed it. Other than a few tractor-trailers, nothing stood between the Corvette and the mountain ranges. The roads through them were superb.
It was only when I began the final approach into Las Vegas that I saw congestion pick up again. Traffic on I-15 in and around Sin City was thick, even on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps some visitors from LA had lost big at the casinos and had to slither home empty-handed. One woman had stopped with her children on the side of the interstate, antifreeze dripping from the front of her SUV as they sat there helplessly, windows rolled down, in the 116-degree heat. The Corvette’s electric fans ran nonstop to keep it from overheating as traffic crept along.
California – the Golden State, the land of fresh fruit, sunshine and sparkling beaches – has the worst roads in the country besides the District of Columbia. According to Trip’s report, more than half its roads are in poor condition. Crawling by the road construction on the interstate highways around Los Angeles – and, later in the week, on Interstate 5 north of Bakersfield – Trip’s assessment seemed accurate enough.
Future road trippers are likely to experience even more delays and congestion. Heavy truck travel is expected to increase by about 72% between now and 2030. A fully loaded tractor-trailer weighs about 80,000lb, and the extra weight puts added strain on already heavily traveled roads.
No one disagrees that America’s roads need fixing. The current impasse in Congress isn’t over whether roads should be maintained, but over how to pay for it. Raising the gas tax doesn’t seem a popular option among federal lawmakers, and other potential solutions include diverting $30bn from a federal employee retirement savings plan, which is unpopular with Democrats.
On the road in the borrowed Corvette, it was clear that something needed to be done. Even Paul Ryan, a Republican not usually known for championing government spending, agrees.
“Instead of fixing the problem, we’ve dodged it,” Ryan, chairman of the House ways and means committee, said during a statement on the House floor last month. “Five times we’ve come up with temporary solutions and transferred money from the general fund into the trust fund – which, in English, means we’ve patched a pothole and not fixed the problem.”
By the end of a very long drive across the continent, I knew how quickly the relative ease of such a journey could be shattered by lack of funding. Like any birthright, the American driving privilege doesn’t come free.