Study: Utah roads among best, but overspending among worst
By Lee Davidson
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 02 2013 05:35PM
A new national study says Utah’s urban highway conditions are among the nation’s best, but the state is among the worst for cost-effective road spending — including paying nearly four times the national per-mile average for administration.
The Utah Department of Transportation disputes the findings on spending.
After combining components, Utah ranks 26th nationally for overall highway performance and efficiency — falling from 22nd and 16th best in the two previous annual reports by the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank that describes itself as "promoting libertarian principles." It looked at conditions in 2009 because of the time needed to compile data nationally.
UDOT says it cannot figure why the study lists its administrative costs as so high —and says the numbers are likely faulty.
The study says the Utah’s administrative costs per mile of highway went from $12,938 in 2007 to $42,390 in 2009, a 228 percent increase. It said that 2009 number was four times higher than the national average, and ranked Utah 45th among the states.
However, UDOT says its records show its administrative costs increased by 8.3 percent in those years — from $72.3 million to $78.3 million overall — while the number of miles in the state highway system remained the same.
Funny numbers • "We don’t know where they are coming up with those numbers. They are not consistent with what we see here," said UDOT spokesman John Gleason. "There’s a slight increase in the numbers, but nothing on the magnitude they are citing."
In contrast, the study said, "With 5,840 miles under state highway control, it is one of the smaller systems in the country. Yet Utah’s total per-mile highway disbursements are nearly twice the national per-mile average, ranking 39th. The state’s per-mile administrative spending is 3.7 times the national per-mile average, ranking 45th in the country."
On the bright side, the study ranks Utah No. 1 for the condition of its urban interstate freeway pavement — with none of it rated in "poor" condition. In comparison, Hawaii was worst in the nation with 27 percent of its urban freeways in poor condition, followed by California and New Jersey with 16 percent each.
"We have made a commitment to our higher-volume roads, and I think this report shows that," said UDOT Deputy Director Shane Marshall. "Our high-volume roads are improving, but our low-volume roads are beginning to deteriorate."
Dwindling resources • That’s because declining revenue from gasoline and other transportation taxes in recent years led UDOT to stop all preventive maintenance on state highways with fewer than 1,000 cars a day to allow it to keep up the condition of freeways and high-use highways,
New UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras told legislators last month that means on those lesser-used state highways — with 1,975 miles, or 40 percent of overall state highway mileage — "we do not actively maintain. We react. We go out and fill potholes."
The study ranked Utah 23rd in condition of non-freeway rural arterial roads.
Bridge conditions on Utah’s highways ranked sixth best among the states, according to the study, with 13.72 percent of them rated as deficient. Its fatality rate ranked 12th best.
Utah ranked a mediocre 26th in urban interstate congestion in 2009. But since then, UDOT has completed some major projects to help reduce congestion, including the $1.73 billion rebuild and widening of Interstate 15 in Utah County and the first $730 million phase of the Mountain View Corridor in western Salt Lake County.
"We really started our capacity improvement program about that time , and I would bet our congestion numbers are much better," Marshall said.
Because of trouble in keeping up with highway maintenance, numerous groups — including the Salt Lake Chamber and cities and counties statewide — are pushing for a hike in the 24.5-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax, which has not been increased in 16 years, or other transportation taxes and fees.
Also, revenue from the gas tax has decreased as cars have become more fuel efficient and more people have switched to alternative fuels that do not pay it. A recent study by the Utah Foundation said because of such problems, the state will have an $11.3 billion shortfall during the next 30 years for planned, high-priority highway and mass transit projects.
The push for the tax increase has opponents.
"I feel an urgency to keep taxes as unburdensome as possible," Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, told The Tribune. "The economy does not lend itself to higher taxation."