N.J. highways cost most, study says

Posted: July 05, 2013

New Jersey's roads may not be paved with gold, but they certainly are expensive.

The state ranks highest in the nation in the cost of maintaining its roads, spending almost twice as much per mile as the number-two state, California, according to a new national study.

New Jersey spent $1.2 million per mile a year to maintain and build its roads and bridges, compared to a national average of $145,000 per mile, the study said. The lowest spending was by South Carolina, which spent $31,379 per mile.

Much of the reason for New Jersey's expensive roads is the state's pave-now, pay-later philosophy. A third of New Jersey's highway funds went to pay debt, second-highest in the country. By comparison, Pennsylvania spent 5 percent for debt service.

About 45 percent of New Jersey's highway spending ($1.8 billion of $4.07 billion) went to administration, principal and interest payments, and law enforcement.

The annual highway study for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank in Los Angeles, was prepared by David T. Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

The study evaluated "highway performance," essentially a bang-for-the-buck measurement that assesses how congested and well-maintained states' roads are compared with how much the states spend on their highways.

New Jersey ranked 46th among the 50 states for overall performance.

Pennsylvania fared slightly better, ranked 39th. Pennsylvania spent $150,000 per mile on its highways, ranking it 23d in that category.

The Reason Foundation's 20th annual highway report was based on 2009 data submitted by the states to the Federal Highway Administration, the most recent data available. The study measured 11 categories, including fatality rates, percentages of deficient bridges, road conditions, congestion, and spending per mile.

The report's authors concluded that New Jersey's "main problem seems to be its financial performance rather than the performance of the system itself."

The reliance on borrowing to pay for roads "is like putting your highway ride on your kids' credit card," Hartgen said Wednesday.

Although it spent 8.4 times the national per-mile average, New Jersey got better-than-average results in only three categories: fatality rate (fourth-best in the country), condition of rural interstates (first), and width of rural arterial highways (first).

The densely populated state was among the bottom five states in the condition of its urban interstates and in the level of urban highway congestion.

Joseph Dee, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation, said the state had significantly improved road and bridge conditions since 2009.

Dee said 59 percent of the state's roads were in "acceptable condition" by the end of 2012, compared with 47 percent in 2008, and "we're on track to reach 80 percent by 2021."

Only about 11 percent of the state's bridges are now rated structurally deficient, a dramatic improvement from the 27 percent cited in the Reason report, Dee said.

He acknowledged that highway costs are high in New Jersey, noting that "a lot of factors go into that, including the way we build our roads to minimize inconvenience to drivers. That adds time and complexity," and increases costs."

"To build and maintain our highway system, it is expensive in New Jersey," Dee said. "We are the most densely populated state in the country, and we can't just close a road to rebuild it."

Dee said "the Christie administration has restrained the rate of growth of public debt. That's not the same as reducing it, but it's a huge ocean liner and you don't turn it on a dime."

New Jersey's reliance on borrowing for its highway work has long been an issue for the state's political leaders, who are loath in a high-tax state to raise the gas tax, which has not gone up since 1988.

All of the transportation revenues from gas taxes, motor vehicle fees, and sales taxes now go to pay the $1 billion annual debt service on previously borrowed money, and the state Transportation Trust Fund is about $15 billion in debt.

Christie promised in 2011 to reduce highway borrowing, but instead has increased borrowing to plug holes in the state budget. He has declined to consider an increase in the state's 14.5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, which is the second-lowest in the country.

As the new budget year began Monday, eight states increased their gas taxes to boost funding for highway costs, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The largest increase was in Wyoming, which raised its gas tax to 24 cents a gallon from 14 cents, followed by Connecticut, California, Maryland, Kentucky, Nebraska, Georgia and North Carolina.

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com

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