Report ranks N.J. highways dead last in the country. Why are we that bad?

Published: Nov. 22, 2021

New Jersey finished dead last overall in the Reason Foundation’s 26th Annual Highway Report, and last in five categories, including cost-effectiveness and condition.

If there’s a positive side to that dark cloud, the report said the state is better than 46 other states for traffic fatalities and it leads the nation for fewest fatalities on rural roads. The report also ranked the state first for the condition of rural interstate highway pavement.

If this seems like driving déjà vu, it’s because Reason ranked the state dead last overall in 2020′s report too.

The state’s biggest downfall was the high cost of maintenance, construction and big projects, compared to other states.

Reason officials talked about the report and the rankings during a Monday webinar with a panel that included DOT officials from Utah and North Carolina

“I grew up in New Jersey. I’m a little concerned to see New Jersey isn’t ranking high,” said Carlos Bracera, Utah’s DOT executive director.

New Jersey’s Department of Transportation said its skeptical of the report’s methods.

So why such a lousy rating?

Reason says New Jersey spends the most in the nation - $1.136 million per mile of state-controlled road. The state is in last place for capital and bridge costs per mile and the highest in total spending per mile. But there has been some progress to trim what the foundation considers a monster cost.

The price per mile cost has declined since 2016, when Reason determined that cost was a staggering $2.18 million per mile to rebuild and maintain roads and bridges. By comparison, first-ranked North Dakota spends $26,943 per mile of state-controlled road, the report said.

However, North Dakota ranks in the bottom 10 states for the percentage of structurally deficient bridges, while New Jersey ranked in the top third of the states for the condition of its bridges.

It what will come as no surprise to Jersey drivers that the state ranks last for urban congestion and the report said commuters suffer in more than 86 hours of traffic jams a year, more than any other state. The best ranking state for traffic congestion was Utah, where drivers put up with a measly 1.75 hours in traffic jams per year.

“The state (New Jersey) has the worst of both worlds: high spending and poor roadways,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation and the report’s lead author. “The state spends the most money per mile in three of the four disbursement categories but still ranks in the bottom 10 in three of the four pavement condition categories (urban Interstate, rural arterial, and urban arterial).”

What should balance out in the New Jersey’s favor is that more traffic on the road translates into more gas tax or toll revenues and that should counter the effect of more vehicles on the state’s highways, Feigenbaum said.

“We’re looking at the density issue, to see if that’s a concern, but more revenue should counter the density issue,” he said.

“We realize New Jersey will never be No. 1 in (low) spending because it’s a high cost neighborhood, but North Dakota will not be No. 1 in (low) fatalities,” Feigenbaum continued. “There are certain rankings that tend to benefit more urban states and some benefit more rural states and we try to even them out as much as possible.”

All New Jersey’s neighboring states ranked better, with New York ranking 46th overall, Delaware at 44th and Pennsylvania was 39th, the report said.

North Dakota ranked first overall, followed by Virginia, second, Missouri in third and Kentucky fifth best.

The report ranks states in 13 categories using 2019 Federal Highway Administration data in all but two categories where 2020 data was available.

“Over the years, NJDOT has raised several discrepancies in the way in which the Reason Foundation presents data pertaining to New Jersey,” said Barry James, a New Jersey Department of Transportation spokesman. “As this latest report was just issued, we have not fully analyzed its contents to understand what is at the heart of the Foundation’s conclusion. We will release a formal response shortly.”

In past years, state transportation officials challenged the report’s methodology for determining the per mile cost, calling it “flawed.” The total cost per mile includes spending on highways controlled by the DOT and by toll authorities operating in the state that are controlled by independent boards.

In prior years New Jersey DOT officials said the Foundation’s work has been refuted by a University of Utah study, authored by a Stanford-educated economist, that found Reason erroneously compares “a mile of one-lane country road in Wyoming to a mile of four-lane Turnpike in New Jersey.” It found that New Jersey road costs are in line with costs across the country when those errors are corrected.

The DOT commissioned a May 2016 study by the Voorhees Transportation Institute at Rutgers University that said the state spends $212,927 per mile, when debt is included, and $183,757 per mile without debt for highways and bridges controlled by the DOT.

“I’m not trying to pick on New Jersey, I’m just showing there are some things it does well and somethings it doesn’t,” Feigenbaum, of Reason, said. “But when you perform this poorly in this many categories, that’s when you tend to rank toward the bottom.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-23 01:58:46 -0800