Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
May 1, 1998
TranSafety, Inc.
(U.S. and Canada)
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Rural Roads and Bridges: A Comprehensive Analysis

(The first three paragraphs of this article summarize the challenges ahead for maintaining and upgrading America's nonurban roads and bridges. The source of this information is Rural Roads and Bridges: A Comprehensive Analysis by Steven C. Deller and Norman Walzer, published in September 1997 by the United States Department of Agriculture. Reproduced here are three sections of that report: "Purpose of the Project" (page 6), "Organization of Study" (pages 7-8), and "Organization of Report" (pages 8-9). The complete report is 112 pages and can be purchased from TranSafety, Inc. for $25 plus $4 postage and handling.)

During the last decades, demands on rural roads and bridges have increased. Population shifts from urban to nonurban areas and a trend toward replacing light trucks and local grain elevators with heavier trucks and centralized collection points mean more traffic and heavier traffic on local roads. During the same period, revenue sources for repair and maintenance of these key infrastructure components have dwindled. Property taxes on farmland are going down as farmers' incomes drop, and the usual source of financing for local road and bridge projects--the fuel tax--has suffered as vehicle manufacturers work to improve gas consumption ratings.

One result, according to a 1988 study, is an American infrastructure that is "barely adequate to support current needs." Expensive, long-term rural road and bridge repair and replacement is being overlooked and postponed in favor of more visible new projects.

America's nonurban areas need a road and bridge system that provides reasonable access by fire and emergency vehicles to its growing population and supports the transportation needs of economic growth and development. This report summarizes information to help policymakers recognize the deteriorating condition of the system and understand the need to restructure revenue sources to allocate resources for important road and bridge projects.

Purpose of the Project

Effective public decisions must be based on an accurate perception of the needs and conditions of local roads and bridges. State or Federal agencies regularly publish condition information on local transportation systems. The most comprehensive source is the annual Federal Highway Statistics that provides summary statistics across the United States but does not classify much of the information by metro or nonmetro and contains relatively little condition information. The National Bridge Inventory (NBI) maintained by the FHWA is a wealth of information about bridge conditions but is not tabulated and published on a regular basis.

The lack of timely information about the local road network in the United States is the reason for this study. The local road networks do not receive national attention, as do issues regarding urban infrastructure decay, but are crucial to the economic competitiveness of small towns and the quality of life for residents in unincorporated areas. Many road miles and bridges constituting the local road network are in a state of disrepair, and local governments responsible for their maintenance are often not in a position to adequately finance needed repairs. Rural governments vary widely in economic viability, with some areas prospering in terms of economic revitalization. Other areas, especially those in remote rural locations, are likely to face continuing difficulties in maintaining a safe and efficient transportation network. These areas are also less likely to compete effectively for resources in a system which may place large urban areas in the same contest with smaller rural groups. Some States will distribute funding in such a way that both metro and rural needs are considered. In other States, the growing pressures in cities and suburbs may overshadow the needs of rural areas.

Organization of Study

This report updates and builds on earlier regional and national studies of the condition and financing of the local transportation network. For example, previous studies have identified serious deficiencies in the quality of the system and limitations in the ability of responsible governmental units to prevent further deterioration. In a study of low- volume rural roads in the Midwest, Chicoine and Walzer (1984) reported that 50 percent of all road mileage required more than regular maintenance. Indeed, nearly one in five bridges needed to be completely replaced.

In a subsequent national study of county- and town-maintained roads, Walzer and Chicoine (1989) reported that, on average, 25 percent of county road mileage and 32 percent of town road mileage were reported as less than barely adequate. Similarly, more than 40 percent of county-maintained bridges nationwide were placed in high- priority-to-repair categories by road officials. Based on information available from the NBI conducted by the FHWA, Walzer and Chicoine estimated that, nationwide, 57 percent of bridges maintained by towns were rated at less than barely adequate.

In a more recent study of the New England local network Deller and Halsted (1991) reported 26.8 percent of the mileage as in need of major repair. On average, only 40.1 percent of road mileage was in good enough condition to require regular maintenance only. In addition, nearly one in five (17.9 percent) bridges was deemed by local officials to be in need of complete replacement. Nearly one in six (16.2 percent ) bridges was considered in need of major renovation. Only half of the bridge network (48.4 percent) was assessed as requiring only regular maintenance. The resulting pattern of bridges posted with weight limits negatively affects traffic patterns in nearly every New England town participating in the study. While none of the above- mentioned studies calculated the costs to residents and businesses in higher deterioration of vehicles or costly delays, it is clear that, in the minds of respondents, the condition of the roads and bridges is of serious concern.

This study contributes to the literature on local transportation finance by updating the national data base, identifying current conditions and issues, and identifying changing patterns and conditions. The condition and financing patterns of local roads and bridges are ever-changing, as road needs change and as the ability of local governments to finance services changes also.

Subsequent analyses in this report are based in several sources of data. The primary sources of information are national surveys coordinated by the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National Association of County Engineers (NACE), and the National Association of Towns and Townships (NATT). In 1994, a survey was sent to counties and towns, nationwide, with significant responsibility for the local town network. A total of 609 counties and 1,961 towns provided useable information. The questionnaires were similar to those used in a 1987 study, so that the status and condition of the local road network could be compared (Walzer and Chicoine 1987).

Data to supplement the local survey information were obtained from publications by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census of Governments; the U.S. Department of Transportation, FHWA, specifically the National Bridge Inventory (NBI); and data files from the USDA's Economic Research Service. With this broad use of information, we can ask many important questions about the types of counties and towns that experienced the most significant concerns about road and bridge condition, and also which were least likely to be able to afford remedial action. Counties and towns also are classified by size and regional location to see whether certain sections of the United States are doing especially well or poorly.

The analyses in this report have two main purposes. First, they call attention to an issue that, while important to many residents, does not regularly receive attention from policymakers at the State and Federal levels. Second, the analyses provide information for designing the renewal of the ISTEA legislation, particularly the interface with local governments. At the very least, it represents the opinions of local public officials who work with the roads and bridges daily.

Organization of Report

The report is organized into six chapters. The first chapter, beyond the introduction, details the status and condition of both county- and town-maintained roads and bridges. The information provided is based on both mail questionnaires returned by local highway administrators and, in the case of bridges, information from the NBI for 1994.

The second chapter examines the condition and surface of local roads in rural areas. Comparisons are made between the responses to a mail survey of county and road administrators in 1994 with a similar data-gathering effort in 1987. As part of the discussion, attention is paid to the adequacy of revenues for road and bridge services.

The condition of local bridges is considered in Chapter 3, using several data sets. The NBI serves as the basic source of information. However, this information is supplemented by a mail survey of county and town highway administrators. In addition to the changing condition of bridges, the adequacy of current revenues is examined.

The fourth chapter examines financing issues, including sources of revenues used to maintain roads and bridges and the amounts spent in providing these services. Since one of largest revenue sources is property taxes, information on which groups would favor or resist property taxes is also provided. In general, local road administrators reported inadequate revenues, but a majority did not report that services were reduced. However, compared with 1987, the percentage reporting inadequate revenues was higher in 1994.

The fifth chapter is devoted to a discussion of the broad concerns and policy issues facing county and road officials. In the remainder of this decade and into the foreseeable future, county governments are likely to increase in importance, especially if the devolution of Federal programs continues. It is very likely that State governments will follow the Federal lead in sending programs back to local governments using the rationale that they can be more efficient and creative about finding remedies for these issues.

The concluding chapter summarizes the findings of this study, examines policy issues that local transportation administration are likely to face, and advances a set of possible policy options that they might initiate. In the future, it will be even more important for local governments to find creative solutions to local concerns and seek authority from the State and Federal governments to initiate the solutions which show the greatest promise. It is only in this type of framework that a policy of devolving programs to the local and State governments can work. While many local governments are small and have limited staff, they are often in the best position to find low-cost solutions. This is not to say that they can solve problems with no resources; rather, it says that State and Federal government-mandated programs can be more expensive and less effective, because they do not consider local institutions and unique characteristics. The 1990s may offer local governments an opportunity to show how creative they can be when given the chance and some resources to find solutions. For this approach to work, however, local public officials and State agencies will have to work closely together.

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