News: CJ Exclusives

Study Finds County Road Disparities

North Carolina is “losing the battle on road conditions,” says author

An average of 93 miles a year of North Carolina highways have slipped into the “poor pavement” category since 1998, according to a new study of regional road conditions, with hurricanes and state policies contributing to an overall decline in the quality of roadways.

“Clearly, North Carolina is losing the battle on road conditions,” said Dr. David Hartgen, a transportation expert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of a new report, “Trends in North Carolina’s County Road Conditions 1998-2004.” It’s the latest in a series of studies of state transportation trends and priorities published by the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation.

In the new county-oriented report, Hartgen sought to measure changes in the condition of roads and bridges across North Carolina since 1998, when he wrote a previous and comprehensive paper for JLF on the issue. Key research questions included whether there were regional disparities in road quality and, if so, how much policymaking in Raleigh was responsible.

Although Hartgen found a major improvement in poor bridge decks in the state since 1998, and a slight improvement in the percentage of narrow highway lanes, he found a troubling increase in the percentage of roads with poor pavement and narrow shoulders. Both problems reduce the safety and economic value of the highway system.

Road conditions varied widely across the state. In 2004, the percentage of poor pavement varied from a low of 0 percent in Yancey County to a high of 27.2 percent in Ashe County, the study found. Overall, 5,994 miles, or 8.2 percent of state-owned roads, had pavements rated in poor condition.

The top 10 counties in pavement condition were Yancey, Richmond, Caswell, Wilson, Hoke, Montgomery, Lee, Alleghany, Randolph, and Scotland. The bottom 10 were Ashe, McDowell, Pamlico, Bertie, Sampson, Mitchell, Duplin, Nash, Greene, Stokes, and Jones.

“Inequalities this large are unacceptable,” Hartgen said. “We would act immediately if we found these differences in school or health programs. Unequal roads mean unequal economic health. A uniformly high-quality road system is critical to a strong North Carolina economy.”

The study also found wide variations in other measures. The percentage of roads with narrow lanes varied from a low of 39.9 percent in Mecklenburg County to a high of 93.0 percent in Alleghany County. Overall, 53,334 miles, or 72.9 percent of state-owned roads, had lanes less than 12 feet wide, a common standard.

The percentage of roads with narrow shoulders ranged from a low of just 0.4 percent in Stokes County to a high of 71.3 percent in Surry County. Overall, 14,521 miles or 19.8 percent of the state-owned roads reported shoulders of less than 4 feet wide, a common standard.

Bridge conditions were more uniform throughout the state. The percentage of poor bridge decks varied form a low of 0.0 percent in 6 counties to a high of 11.9 percent in Hoke County. Overall, 3.1 percent, or 692 of the state’s 22,244 bridges had bridge decks rated in poor condition.

Counties in the western mountainous regions generally reported significantly higher percentages of narrow lanes and narrow shoulders than eastern counties. Pavement conditions were also worse in the state’s western counties in 1998, but recent weather events, particularly Hurricane Floyd in 1999, resulted in deterioration of roads in eastern counties too. The study does not include the effects of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan which pounded western North Carolina in 2004.

The study concludes that the state’s highway funding formulas, in conjunction with varying terrain and occasional major weather events, have resulted in a geographically unequal road system. Specific policy goals should be established to improve the inequities in the state’s road system by 2010 and that present funding formulas should be revised to achieve those goals.

“It is our hope that this study and its recommendations will help to make North Carolina the ‘Good Roads State’ once again,” Hartgen said.

The report is available online here