“I do not think it is an exaggeration to say history is largely a history of inflation, usually inflations engineered by governments for the gain of governments.” — Friedrich August von Hayek
When I moved to California from Ohio in 1962 construction on the Interstate Highway System was in full bloom. States across the land were building bridges, buy rights of way, and laying down miles of concrete roadway.
Upon arrival in California I accepted a position as a highway engineering technician for the California Division of Highways (now Caltrans) and began working on the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) in Los Angeles. We were building eight lanes of concrete roadway from downtown Los Angeles to the Coast Highway in Santa Monica. We were excited over what we were doing and thought this superhighway would solve much of the traffic problems in getting from Los Angeles to Santa Monica.
At the time we were building the Santa Monica Freeway there were hundreds of miles on freeway being built in Los, Angels, Ventura, and Orange counties the area covered by the district I worked for.
At the same time other states were building their interstates and as always when a massive undertaking such as the Interstate Highway System is underway there will be those who will take advantage of the program. Two examples come to mind. The first was the construction of the Tampa Bay causeway where the contractor used sea water to mix his concrete. The salt in the sea water weakens the strength of the concrete and will shorten its life. When this was discovered by inspectors from the Bureau of Public Roads (now the Department of Transportation) the project was stopped, the weaken concrete removes and replaces and the contractor ended up in jail.
The second example was discovered just east of my home town of Cleveland Ohio on the newly constructed I-90. When the roadway was opened a reporter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer was driving along the road just after a heavy rain storm. He noticed large puddles of water (birdbaths in the lexicon of highway engineers) and thought that this should not be happening. He began to write a series of articles about the condition of the roadway. These article brought attention to the Ohio Highway Department and they began an investigation as to why the roadway was sinking in spots. When they conducted test borings they discovered that the sub-base rather than being the required 8 inches thick was only 4 inches. It seems as the contractor has cheated on the sub-base charging for 8 inches while only delivering 4 inches. This amounts to 3097.6 cubic yards per mile for a dual roadway. As you can see if the contract was for a 10 mile section your about talking 31,000 cubic yards of expensive sub base material.
There were other scandals involving the Interstate program including interchanges to nowhere in the desert except dirt roads leading to ranches bids going to friends of local politicians.
Not all states were involved in these scandals and California was considered a model for the building of the Interstate System. This lead NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report to do a special on the Great Interstate Scandal where they exposed all of the shenanigans going on across the nation. They also closed their report with a segment on how to do it right. For that segment they brought their camera crews to the project I was working on. Of course they had Governor Pat Brown, the highway department’s chief engineer and our district engineer on site for the filming. They even took shots of my survey crew doing some work and interviewed one of the members.
In 1963 California was considered a model for all states to follow when building their highways. The Golden State was ranked as number one in the nation.
But all of that has changed. Now California is ranked number 47 for their roads. Even with the highest motor fuel taxes in the nation California is at the bottom of the list only ahead of Hawaii. Rhode Island, and Alaska.
The Libertarian Think Tank Reason Foundation has just released their annual report on the condition of our national highways. Their report states:
“The nation’s road conditions show slight improvement; North Dakota, Kansas and Wyoming have the best, most cost-effective highway systems and that Alaska, Rhode Island, Hawaii and California have the worst highway systems in study of pavement condition, congestion, deficient bridges, fatalities and cost-effectiveness.”
Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report measures the condition and cost-effectiveness of state-owned roads in 11 categories, including pavement condition on urban and rural Interstates, urban traffic congestion, deficient bridges, unsafe narrow lanes, traffic fatalities, total spending per mile of state roads and administrative costs per mile. The study’s rankings are based on data that states reported to the federal government for 2009, the most recent year with full spending statistics available.
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, spending on state roads decreased slightly, by 0.6%, in 2009 compared to 2008.
“It’s hard to believe it when you hit a pothole or see a bridge in Washington collapse, but the nation’s roads have been 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 progress continues to be made.
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 that the next biggest spending state—California—spends. 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 a Reason Foundation study of all 50 state-controlled road systems.
Drivers in California and New Jersey may be wondering what they are getting in return for that money. More than 16 percent of urban Interstate pavement in each of those states is in poor condition. Only Hawaii ranks worse, with 27 percent of its urban Interstate pavement rated as poor.
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.
In terms of overall road conditions and cost-effectiveness, North Dakota has the country’s top ranked state-controlled road system, followed by Kansas (2nd), Wyoming (3rd), New Mexico (4th) and Montana (5th), according to Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report.
Alaska’s state-controlled road system is the lowest quality and least cost-effective in the nation. Rhode Island (49th), Hawaii (48th), California (47th), New Jersey (46th) and New York (45th) also perform poorly.
Vermont’s roads showed the most improvement in the nation, improving from 42nd in the previous report to 28th in the new overall rankings. New Hampshire (27th) and Washington (24th) both improved nine spots in the rankings.
Minnesota system plummeted 17 spots in the rankings, from 25th to 42nd and Delaware dropped nine spots to 20th.
Massachusetts had the lowest traffic fatality rate, while Montana had the highest.
Here is the Reason Foundation’s ranking for all 50 states:
1. North Dakota
4. New Mexico
7. South Carolina
9. South Dakota
18. New Hampshire
19. North Carolina
32. West Virginia
45. New York
46. New Jersey
49. Rhode Island
I can’t speak for all 49 states, but I can comment on a few of the reasons California’s roads have gotten so bad over the past few decades.
Bloated Caltrans civil service workforce.
It is estimated that Caltrans employs about 23,000 full-time civil service employees. this includes engineers, surveyors, mappers, maintenance workers, administrators, and clerical staff. Unlike other highway departments across the country Caltrans outsources less than 10% of its work to the private sector. Other states outsource between 30% to 70% of their engineering and maintenance services to the private sector on a competitive basis. This means that even when there is a reduced workload there is no reduction in Caltrans’ staff. This bloated staff is due to the political power of the public service unions in California, namely the Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG). This union dictates how much of Caltrans’ work is outsourced. This causes inefficiencies in balancing the work load and creates a larger demand for future pension liabilities
Increasing costs of health care for retired Caltrans employees.
Today about one-third of the money Caltrans collects from gas taxes and other motor vehicle fees are paid out to retirees for health care. Even with the highest gas taxes in the nation Caltrans is getting less money for maintenance of California’s roads and bridges and less and less money that should be reimbursed to local counties and cities for the maintenance of local streets. Also there has been very little new construction financed by the state. Most of the new construction is financed by counties through voter-approved sales tax measures.
The state raiding into the highway trust fund.
Until recently due to a voter approved initiative forbidding the state of California to raid the highway trust fund for the purpose of bolstering the general fund the state used money intended for maintenance of roads and bridges to be used to support the giant social welfare programs in California. After the passage of the initiative this was no longer allowed, but the state can still “borrow” highway money at the discretion of the Democrat controlled legislature. No matter how you cut it these highway funds do not end up maintaining the state’s roads and bridges.
In 50 years of mismanagement and union control the State of California has gone from no.1 in highway construction and management to no. 47.