Local, state and federal cooperation needed to improve safety of deteriorating roads

Reading the latest data on the condition of our nation’s roads from the transportation research organization TRIP makes that lifetime alignment policy from Firestone looks like a wise investment. Nationwide, 28% of major roadways are in “poor” condition, costing the average driver an extra $515 per year in repairs and maintenance. Skip the rental car and take the Metro the next time you visit our nation’s capital. A staggering 92% of roads in Washington DC are rated poor.

Back at home, Arizona ranks around the middle with 16% of our roads in poor condition. Unfortunately, the condition of roads in Tucson stand out, with 53% being in poor condition as of 2013. This puts Tucson in the unenviable position of #5 among cities with populations over half a million.

Local and state transportation agencies are doing what they can with the money available to improve road and highway conditions. Pima County voters approved a $2.1 billion, 20 year regional transportation plan funded by a half-cent excise tax in 2006. Since that time, the Regional Transportation Authority has been able to fund 654 projects, including 20 roadway corridor improvement projects and 149 intersection safety improvements. These projects go a long way in improving the safety and overall functioning of the area’s transportation system. However, the continual uncertainty of federal funding strains the capacity of local and state agencies.

State, local and federal transportation agencies have historically enjoyed a strong partnership. This partnership has two important features. First, while the U.S. Department of Transportation does set some parameters, state and municipal governments generally have broad authority to decide where to spend their transportation dollars. Secondly, the U.S. DOT helps to ensure there is connectivity between states so that the nationwide system operates without major gaps.

During the lengthy Congressional debate over reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund, we’ve heard calls for “devolution” or returning all or most transportation funding to the states. This approach would involve reducing or eliminating the federal gas tax and relying on states to find their own revenue sources to replace it. While vesting more decision-making authority at the local level should certainly be a goal of the new highway bill, disbanding the long-standing state and federal partnership would cause more harm than good.  Roads in poor and unsafe condition are a national concern and require a national solution that builds upon rather than dismantling cooperation between the state and local transportation agencies and the U.S. DOT.

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