Kansans ought to be gratified that the most recent rankings of state highway systems’ condition and cost-effectiveness by the Reason Foundation cast a friendly spotlight on our state.
Placing second based on 2009 information, the latest year for which full statistics are available, is outstanding, and it’s all the more rewarding coming after the state placed third the previous two years. Significantly, the state achieved its high ranking despite spending 24 percent less per mile than the national average.
The state rankings are based on 11 factors, including highway expenditures, interstate and primary road pavement condition, bridge condition, urban interstate congestion, fatality rates and narrow rural lanes.
Not surprisingly, most of the states in the top 10 were more rural than urban. North Dakota finished ahead of Kansas, and the states finishing third through sixth were Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Nebraska. Missouri was eighth.
Kansas roads — and Kansans — have benefited from three 10-year transportation programs, the first of which was in 1989. The Legislature approved another in 1999 and the third one in 2010.
Unfortunately, the high ranking could mean that Kansas is among the best of a mediocre lot, based on data from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card of the nation’s infrastructure.
The civil engineers give Kansas a C-plus for our roads and a D-plus for our bridges. Their report says 62 percent of Kansas roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and adds, “Driving on roads in need of repair costs Kansas motorists $646 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs — $319 per motorist.”
The report also notes that Kansas has not changed its gas tax in nine years.
Of 25,176 bridges in Kansas, 2,658 — 10.6 percent — are considered “structurally deficient.” Another 1,959 bridges — 7.8 percent — are considered “functionally obsolete.”
“Mediocre, “ “poor,” “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” are ugly descriptions of structures as important as roads and bridges are to Kansans and to the state’s economy. Even allowing for some bias by civil engineers who might not be able to look at roads and bridges without seeing a project to do, there’s plenty of room for improvement in Kansas.
Kansas lawmakers who are inclined to siphon further money from the highway program to cope with declining state revenue ought to rethink their plans, because the picture isn’t nearly as rosy as the Reason Foundation report suggests.