Traveling on U.S. roads can be quite a bumpy ride with many roads in poor condition. While America’s Road System is an engineering marvel, it can also be a bit of a mess. So why are many American roads in such poor condition?
Here are the 5 main reasons why modern roads are in bad shape:
- The road infrastructure is old.
- Different government levels own and maintain roads.
- Budgets are spent in the wrong places.
- There has been an increase in travel.
- They’re vulnerable to harsh climates and climate change.
Keep reading to dive more deeply into the reasons that make the conditions of American roads so bad.
1. The Road Infrastructure is Old
There’s no denying that American infrastructure is in poor condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers supported this assertion in 2021 by giving the U.S. a C-minus for its national infrastructure. One of the top factors leading to such a poor state goes far back in history.
When President Eisenhower decided to expand the country’s road system in the 1950s, the Interstate Highways System was born to address America’s dire road conditions. They planned to finish the project in 10 years (although it took longer), so, naturally, they didn’t think their roads would last forever. These roads have specific lifespans that are certainly not 60 years.
What’s more, the Interstate Highway System soon replaced rail for transporting cargo. This shift from rail to road added to the burden already created by the growing number of cars.
Mix this with the poor foundation of many roads built in the U.S. Most Interstate Highway roads are built on a thin layer of compacted dirt instead of concrete. So, when the road isn’t sealed properly, rainwater gets under the asphalt.
It stays in the layer between the asphalt and the foundation. The pressure from cars and trucks pushes the water down and forces some dirt up, creating pockets under the asphalt. Then, the water pocket creates cracks in the asphalt to get out.
That’s why you see many potholes on U.S. roads.
2. Different Government Levels Own and Maintain Roads
Since different kinds of roads are made in the U.S. (e.g., interstate or state highways), different governmental bodies are responsible for funding their construction and maintenance. The federal government maintains some roads while others are the responsibility of city or state officials.
That means these roads have different budgets allocated to their maintenance and construction. Some of them are toll roads, getting their budgets this way. Others get funds from the city, state, or federal taxes, depending on the state. Less money means lower quality materials and less frequent repairs.
The federal government funds the construction and maintenance of highways through the Trust Fund. But the problem is that the Trust Fund gets its revenue from the fuel tax.
This tax has been fixed since 1993, although the inflation rate has been increasing. That means the taxes’ purchasing power has decreased, and the federal government can’t fund the roads the way it should. In addition, the growth of electric cars means there’s even less tax on gas because people will stop paying for gas.
That’s another reason you may see roads have different qualities across different states or places in the U.S. This difference is so big that you may even see 2 connecting roads have different qualities.
3. Budgets Are Spent in the Wrong Places
Even with limited budgets, states don’t spend them on things they should. For example, in 2009, President Obama introduced a stimulus act with $27.5 billion allocated to highways. But the roads didn’t see a considerable improvement despite these fundings. Some states spent the money on other areas, and some of them even cut the highway budgets.
While this problem had an economically justified cause, it doesn’t change the reality that highways didn’t improve despite budget raises. (States repurposed the budgets to address problems created due to the 2008 crisis.)
And those who spent the money on roads used it to build and expand new roads instead of repairing the existing ones. For example, New Mexico had almost 25 percent of its routes in poor condition at that time. But the state officials spent the fund on building new roads, leading to a growth of roads in poor condition to 31 percent after 8 years.
When new roads are constructed, the funds we need for maintenance increase. So, the problem continues to grow without addressing the root cause.
Another problem is that when government officials and politicians spend funds on maintenance and repair, they focus on band-aid solutions like changing the pavement. That’s shinier and attracts people’s attention, showing them that officials are doing something worthwhile.
However, they should focus on the underlying infrastructure and improve foundations to avoid future problems and increase the life expectancy of roads.
There’s also another problem with rural roads. While 70 percent of the American roads are in rural areas, they only handle 30 percent of the traffic. That’s why there are mixed views on how to allocate highway budgets.
Since these roads don’t bear much traffic, some people believe they don’t need as much maintenance as urban roads. This view has left these roads neglected, worsening their conditions and adding to the burden of funds.
4. There Has Been an Increase in Travel
Americans travel a lot. According to statistics, there were 213 billion vehicle miles in May 2020. All these travels put a massive strain on the roads, requiring constant maintenance and repair.
What’s more, new roads are built based on the population and the estimated travels on these roads. So, if an area grows in population contrary to predictions, the roads can’t handle the increased travel because the engineers built it based on past assumptions.
This increased traffic places extra pressure on the road, which it’s not designed to handle.
5. They’re Vulnerable to Harsh Climates and Climate Change
Money doesn’t seem to be the only reason that contributes to road quality. According to a report by the Reason Foundation, ranking U.S. states on road quality, New Jersey is at the bottom of this list. That’s even though it spent the most on road construction and repair.
If you’ve noticed, not all U.S. roads are the same regarding damage and road quality. Some are in better conditions than others. One of the top reasons behind this issue is climate. Roads in areas with a harsher climate are generally in a worse condition than others. For example, harsh and freezing winters damage the roads and leave them with many potholes when they end.
Most states with the highest percentage of poor-quality roads are in the northeast, which has a harsh climate. On the other hand, the states that are in better conditions are in the south. Watch the video below to learn more about why U.S. roads are so bad:
Another problem is climate change that’s increasing the temperatures globally. When you think of climate change, melting glaciers and rising sea levels pop into your mind. But these changes can affect the quality of our roads, too.
According to research, the asphalt used in paving roads isn’t optimal for new climate conditions, and the rising temperatures negatively affect the asphalt.
That’s because asphalt is sensitive to temperature, which makes it melt at high temperatures and crack at low temperatures. But functionality and safety are considered more than climate change and temperature fluctuations in designing roads.
These problems call for a new road infrastructure that considers temperature fluctuations. And since global temperatures continue to rise, the old infrastructure can’t handle new conditions.
- How Stuff Works: How Bad Is America’s Infrastructure, Really?
- Statista: U.S. roads in poor condition in 2017, by state
- CRS Reports: Rural Highways
- Street Blogs: The High Cost of Cheap Roads
- Smart Growth America: Learning From the 2009 Recovery Act
- Tax Policy Center: Key Elements of the U.S. Tax System
- YouTube: Why U.S. Roads And Highways Are So Bad
- Reason Foundation: Study Ranks Every State’s Highway System, Finds Road Conditions Worsening In Important Categories
- Infrastructurereportcard: America’s Infrastructure Scores a C-
- Sciencedirect: Evaluating the effects of climate change on road maintenance intervention strategies and Life-Cycle Costs
- Statista: U.S. traffic volume between January 2019 and May 2020, by system
- Research.stlouisfed: Why the 2009 Recovery Act Didn’t Improve the Nation’s Highways
- Stlouisfed: How Highway Stimulus Spending Turned into a Dead End
- Fhwa.dot: Status of The Federal Highway Trust Fund 1/
- Asce: The Future Starts With Civil Engineers