October 1 2006

When it comes to the state’s roads and bridges, how does Pennsylvania compare to other states with similar economic and climate conditions? IssuesPA takes a closer look.

(October 2006) It comes as no surprise to Pennsylvanians who travel across state borders – or even just those traveling within the state – that Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges aren’t in great shape. There’s a real impact to drivers on those roads – not just in comfort, but also in efficiency (e.g. speed) of travel, safety, and wear and tear on vehicles caused by bumpy roads.

What is the state of Pennsylvania’s roadways?

Pennsylvania’s nearly 40,000 miles of state-owned roads and highways account for three-quarters of the daily miles traveled overall. Though Pennsylvania’s roads have improved in recent years, more than 27% of the state’s roads still are considered to be in poor or mediocre condition.

There are several factors that have led to the current conditions of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges.

  • Age. The highway system in particular grew out of the development of the interstate highway system in the mid-20th century. Without appropriate maintenance and rebuilding, the roads and bridges will continue to fall into poor condition. 
  • Maintenance costs. Repair costs largely are driven by the price of steel and petroleum products. Some reports show an annual increase of 9-12% in recent years, far outpacing the consumer price index or general inflation rate of around 3%. As a result, the state is unable to keep pace with needed maintenance and repair with the current financial resources dedicated to transportation. 
  • Trucks. Heavier vehicles – particularly trucks – are exponentially more damaging to the road than other vehicles. Pennsylvania’s location makes its highways ideal thruways for the trucking industry. On one hand, truck traffic means a positive economic benefit, as evidenced by distribution centers, warehouse facilities and industries that have chosen to stay or locate in Pennsylvania because of the ease of shipping and distribution. On the other hand, the trucking industry takes a toll on the state’s transportation systems.
  • Traffic in general. Pennsylvania’s roads are burdened by more traffic than ever before. There has been a steady increase in total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in Pennsylvania as in other states. Traffic on Pennsylvania’s roads and highways is expanding faster than the state’s population. From 1995 through 2004, the total VMT increased more than 15% to nearly 109 billion miles traveled. 

What about Pennsylvania’s bridges?

The situation is even worse when the state’s bridges are considered. With its mountains, rivers, and other geographic characteristics, bridges are a vital part of the state’s transportation system. Nearly one-quarter of the state-owned bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” and another 18% are considered to be “functionally obsolete.”  Nearly 6 in 10 bridges in Pennsylvania are at least 40 years old, nearing their useful life of 50 years.

In 2005, 43% of Pennsylvania’s bridges were either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, the fifth highest rate in the country and considerably higher than the national average of 26%.  Compared to states with similar economic and climate conditions – OH, NJ, IL, MI, NY -- Pennsylvania has a higher percentage of bridges considered structurally deficient and functionally obsolete.

In 2005, only New York (38% structurally deficient or functionally obsolete) and New Jersey (36% structurally deficient or functionally obsolete) had bridges in poor condition even close to Pennsylvania’s rate, which has remained consistently high. Despite funding increases for bridges, Pennsylvania saw only a 1.4% reduction of bridges in poor condition from 1995-2005, while all five of Pennsylvania’s benchmark states experienced at least 16.5% reductions.

Age is an important factor when it comes to bridge condition. In 2005, nearly one of every five bridges in Pennsylvania was over 75 years old, while another 20% were less than 25 years old. The ages of Pennsylvania’s bridges are among the oldest relative to its benchmark states. Pennsylvania has the highest rate of bridges over 50 years old (47.3%) and the lowest rate of bridges less than 25 years old.

Bottom line?

A recent IssuesPA poll showed the importance of transportation infrastructure. Four in 10 (42%) said traffic congestion on major roads and highways is a big problem, while the condition of roads, highways and bridges ranked second – with 37% indicating that conditions of transportation infrastructure is a big problem. The condition of roads and bridges is an important quality of life issue for Pennsylvanians, one that impacts the state’s ability to compete for jobs and people.