North Carolina can add another item to its crowded shelf of accolades: according to a newly updated study, our state’s road system ranks second in the nation in performance and cost-effectiveness.
The Reason Foundation has just released the 27th Annual Highway Report. It was brainchild of my longtime friend and colleague, the late UNC-Charlotte professor David Hartgen, and published in its early years by the John Locke Foundation. After the project moved to Reason, Hartgen and his coauthors continued to improve the study’s methodology and presentation. The refinements continued after Hartgen’s retirement. He passed away a couple of years ago.
Because of methodological changes, you can’t just pull out older versions of the study and track state performance over time. Fortunately, current coauthors Baruch Feigenbaum, Truong Bui, and Thuy Nguyen have recalculated some past rankings based on the latest methodology. So I’m on solid ground in saying that North Carolina’s latest ranking — second in the nation, based on 2020 data — represents a significant improvement over our 2018 ranking of 14th.
Reason’s model employs 13 categories of data, ranging from overhead costs and pavement conditions to traffic congestion and highway fatalities. North Carolina compares favorably in expenditure ratios for administration and maintenance (8th), urban congestion (11th), and the condition of our interstates (15th) and urban arterial roads (7th).
On the negative side, we’re below average in the structural soundness of our bridges (30th) and the fatality rate on our two-lane roads and side streets (39th). On our interstates and other major highways, North Carolina’s fatality rates are close to the national average.
How did our state end up ranking second overall, then? Because we outrank most other states on most measures. Our system is consistently high-performing, in other words, while other systems are high in only a few categories (if that).
Back in 2013, the General Assembly and former Gov. Pat McCrory implemented a new funding formula for North Carolina roads. Reducing the influence of pork-barrel considerations, it prioritized projects likely to alleviate congestion and promote economic growth. At the time, David Hartgen called the reform “a very significant step forward.”
It was, indeed — and has surely helped to boost the state’s highway ranking. Keep in mind, however, that rankings are, by their very nature, comparative. North Carolinians have enjoyed real and noticeable improvements in mobility, but at the same time, motorists in other places have experienced declines. Both trends played a role in North Carolina’s surge to second place.
There are also geographical and philosophical forces at work. It can’t be a coincidence that of the top eight states in highway performance — Virginia (1), North Carolina (2), Tennessee (3), Georgia (4), Connecticut (5), South Carolina (6), Kentucky (7), and Florida (8) — all but one are in the Southeast. As for the worst-ranked states, they tend to be progressive-run places such as Washington (46), California (47), and New York (49) or places with challenging topographies such as Hawaii (48) and Alaska (50).
As I’ve observed many times in the past, simplistic takes on interstate competition for jobs and investment do no one any favors. Conservative analysts are right to identify taxes and regulations as potential barriers. Progressive analysts are also right to point to high-quality public services as potential magnets.
Where the latter go wrong is assuming that it requires relatively higher taxes to deliver relatively better services. In the real world, states such as New York and California managed to tax and spend a lot while also ranking low in the quality of services. They’re losing ground to the likes of Florida, Texas, and North Carolina where governments deliver a better bang for the buck.
Now, to say our state scores well in highway performance is not to say we can’t do better. In recent years the Department of Transportation has made some bad calls, and a significant gap remains between projected needs and projected revenues from current taxes. Let’s keep reforming. But let’s also celebrate our progress.