The Best and Worst Highway Maintenance

Recently while traveling through Arkansas I was getting bored so I brought up the topic of which states do the best job and which do the worst when it comes to highway maintenance on the CB radio. Why does it matter that the conversation came up in Arkansas? Because it was only a few years back that Arkansas was widely viewed by truck drivers as having the worst highways in the nation. Arkansas was embarrassed by this, raised their fuel taxes a little bit, and started reconstruction on their interstates. Now that much of the work is completed, Arkansas ranks at least in the top half of all states by the standards I use to judge road maintenance.

What standards do I use? My standards are heavily biased towards how high the highway use and fuel taxes are for commercial truckers and how much value we receive back for the taxes we pay.

So who do I think does the best job and who does the worst? First, let's start with the worst which are easiest to identify. There are only two states that seriously compete for the bottom rung in the rankings and these states are Oregon and New York State. This is based upon what these states charge commercial trucks to run on their highways. I do not think it is mere coincidence that both of these states have what is known as a ton-mile tax which charges trucks by the number of miles travelled in the state. The ton-mile tax is rather unusual with only four states using this method of charging commercial trucks.

Oregon has a hefty 13.16 cents per mile ton-mile tax while not charging any fuel tax to large trucks what-so-ever. To compare the Oregon tax rate to most states which rely on a per gallon tax on diesel one needs to come up with an acceptable miles per gallon (MPG) fuel economy standard for the comparison. I could use my own actual fuel economy from last year which was an impressive 7.25 MPG. Using this figure, we take 7.25 and multiply it by the 13.16 and come up with Oregon would have to charge me 95.41 cents per gallon to receive the same amount of revenue if it abolished the ton-mile tax. However my 7.25 MPG, while not unique is at least rather unusual. It is my understanding that the industry average is something more like 6.00 MPG. Using this figure instead of my own, we come up with 78.96 cents per gallon. While 78.96 cents per gallon is considerably less, it is not in any way reasonable. The average fuel tax is somewhere (I did not do the exact figures) in the mid twenties per gallon. For what Oregon is charging commercial trucks, the highways should be paved with gold.

New York state uses both a ton-mile tax and a per gallon fuel tax to fund highway maintenance. The ton-mile tax runs 4.95 cents per mile, which again using a 6 MPG figure, would equate to 29.70 cents per gallon for comparison. The per gallon fuel tax is a hefty 37.95 cents per gallon. The only state with a higher per gallon fuel tax is Pennsylvania with 38.10 cents per gallon, however Pennsylvania has no ton-mile tax. Taking the "result for comparison" 29.70 cents from the ton-mile tax and the 37.95 per gallon figure, we can see that if New York state were to abolish the ton-mile tax and switch to a fuel tax only, New York would have to charge 67.65 cents per gallon. There is one other factor that might favor New York state winning the bottom rung in the rankings. New York state relies heavily on toll roads. The New York Thruway runs from the Pennsylvania state line to the Massachusetts state line with generous sections of toll roads beyond that. In fairness, New York state does not charge commercial trucks the ton-mile tax on miles travelled on a toll road. There are a few other factors that weigh towards giving New York the "honor" of bottom rung status. Open up a trucker's highway almanac for the state and see how few routes are designated as STAA (Surface Transportation Assistance Act) truck routes. Also, in the same trucker's almanac, note how many low clearances (lower then 13 foot 6 inches) there are in the state.

Now in my judgement, New York state and Oregon are running nose to nose in the race towards the bottom. It's a photo finish! Too close to call. If I am the judge, well, I declare them equally worthy of last place. It's a tie!

Now for top place. It would be fairly easy to come up with a top rung finisher if the only consideration was that the state with the cheapest fuel tax wins automatically. I wish to use a more nuanced approach with an attempt to reach a decision of value returned for amounts paid. However this approach still seems to yield most (but not all) states charging the lowest fuel tax rates finishing in the top ten.

In appraising value returned for taxes paid I wish to point out some of my considerations. Mountainous states can justify higher tax rates due to the higher cost to build and maintain highways in the mountains. Northern states can normally justify higher tax rates due to the high costs involved in keeping the highways open during winter weather conditions. States that continue construction to improve traffic flow and relieve congestion deserve credit for the high costs of new construction if they continue to do a good job of maintaining existing highways.

The state I have selected as "top rung" is going to surprise a number of truckers. In fact, I am fairly sure that my selection is going to cause a number of truck drivers to spit and sputter. But before I go into that, let me point out some of the other contenders and the reason they were eliminated.

First, let us examine the state with the lowest fuel tax rate, and that would be Oklahoma. Oklahoma charges a bargain basement 13.00 cents per gallon fuel tax, the cheapest in the nation. Another factor in their favor is the extensive inclusion of most highways in the STAA network. The eliminating factors? Toll roads and highway maintenance. Oklahoma over relies on tolls to pay for past construction and continuing maintenance of these same toll roads. It is my experience that toll roads are all almost overly maintained as the Oklahoma toll authority seeks justify its existence while other highways (such as Interstate 40) suffer from under maintenance. It is my opinion that Oklahoma should can the toll roads and increase the fuel tax so that funds received can be used to maintain the highways that are most in need of the maintenance. I am not even sure that Oklahoma warrants a place in the top ten.

Next in line in order of low fuel taxes is Wyoming with a thrifty 14.00 cents tax per gallon. Worthy of note is that Wyoming is both a mountainous and northern state. They also do a pretty decent job of maintaining existing highways however there is little new construction that requires (or justifies) higher taxes. The eliminating factor is the extremely poor job Wyoming does of keeping Interstate 80 open in the winter. It is my opinion that Wyoming should raise the fuel tax by a couple cents per gallon and invest in a few more snow plows along with employing a few more drivers to operate them. However, Wyoming certainly qualifies for a top ten ranking.

I am going to group a few other "reasonable" fuel tax rate states together. Missouri weighs in at 17.00 cents per gallon. Missouri almost qualifies as a northern state and does an impressive job of keeping the highways open in the winter. However Missouri has little new construction in progress and at times seems to do a mediocre job of maintaining existing highways and keeping traffic flowing. Missouri is also a little stingy when it comes to including highways in the STAA network. Tennessee also weighs in at 17.00 cents per gallon. Tennessee hardly qualifies as a northern state and does a fairly poor job of keeping the highways open when the snow does fly. Tennessee is also stingy with the STAA network, however is engaged in improving traffic flow at bottle necks within the state. Problem is that Tennessee can't seem to figure out how to keep traffic flowing during the construction. South Carolina weighs in at an impressive 16.00 cents per gallon. South Carolina does a pretty decent job of maintaining existing highways but is involved in little new construction where traffic warrants it. South Carolina is also a southern state with little need for winter condition funding. South Carolina is stingy when it comes to the STAA network. However I am still impressed by South Carolina's frugal tax rate in comparison to her "damn Yankee" neighbors up north in North Carolina!

I could go on and on with all of the "also rans" such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Colorado, Texas, Indiana etc etc.

Now I am going to identify that state which I believe has grasped the gold ring. If you are a truck driver, please let me warn you that you need to put your coffee down and swallow that last gulp before you read any further.

The winner is? The Buckeye state. Yeah that's right, Ohio. Ohio's fuel tax rates are a rather steep 28.00 cents per gallon, however when it comes to "bang for the buck" the trucking industry is getting its money worth. Open up a trucker's almanac and note how Ohio includes almost every highway they have in the STAA network. Drive through the state even during blizzards that shut down the highways in neighboring states and witness how the Ohio highways remain open. Marvel at how well traffic continues to flow along Interstate 70 during reconstruction or along Interstate 71 as the Buckeye state widens the freeway to six lanes all the way from Columbus to Lodi! Note how new construction has made most of US 30 almost as good as a freeway from Mansfield to the Indiana state line with only the small section between Upper Sandusky and Beaverdam remaining as two lane and even there traffic flows smoothly with only a single stop light! (Construction continues that will replace this section with four lane.) Note how you can now travel from Gallipolis (at the West Virginia state line) to Dayton on US 35 with all of it being almost as good as a freeway until you run into a couple stoplights near Dayton. Note how Ohio includes generous truck parking in new rest areas even along the new section of US 30 between Upper Sandusky and Bucyrus and when she refurbishes existing rest areas includes ample parking for trucks in the refurbishment. The only blemish Ohio suffers from is the Ohio Turnpike along the northern tier of the state where trucks suffer from not only the stiff fuel tax rate but must pay an additional stiff toll for running it. However, even here, at least ample truck parking is included in the travel plazas along the way which softens the sting of the toll. In my opinion, the parking place is not worth the toll paid, however at least they give me a place to rest my head at night while they rape me!


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