The condition of our roads


I’ll be blunt. The condition of our roads (all of them, local, state, divided highways, etc) is abysmal. In 30 years of driving in MA, I’ve never seen them at this level of deterioration.

So what’s going to be done? All the publicity around transportation funding centers around the MBTA and bike paths. For better or worse, I have no real opportunity to use the MBTA and bike paths don’t seem like a high priority when the suspension in my car is getting destroyed.

As an aside, a couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days skiing in New Hampshire and their roads are in much better shape than those in Massachusetts. Given that their winters are worse than ours, I can only conclude that their roads are simply built to a higher standard than ours.

7 replies on “The condition of our roads”

  1. Thanks, Paul.

    I get it completely. Really only a fraction of the population has a practical option for commuting by bike or public transportation. While we’d like that fraction to be larger everywhere, in most neighborhoods of the state, the vast majority of commuters do drive and that is not going to change anytime soon.

    Our capital spending does reflect this reality. Essentially all local transportation spending and (ballpark) half of state capital spending goes into roads. (We’ll try to update this with a more accurate number.)

    This is the time of year when the weaknesses of our roads come to the foreground and elected officials across the state hear concerns expresed about the roads. We have had the kind of winter that is particularly hard on roads — lots of freeze-thaw cycles. If roads are not very diligently maintained, then they have little cracks in them. Water gets into those cracks and then breaks up the road when it freezes. In the next freeze-thaw cycle the water goes deeper and breaks up bigger chunks. Soon you have a pothole. Not sure that roads are built to a higher standard in New Hampshire, but it may be that they do a better job at crack sealing.

  2. Will, from a physics standpoint, I fully understand why New England weather wreaks havoc with the roads. That said, there are engineering solutions for making the roads last longer. Deeper road beds (crushed stone, etc) help a lot. I just don’t see any evidence that roads in Massachusetts are built to the standards that they are in NH, as one example. That’s not to say NH roads don’t show deterioration due to the weather, but they don’t have the type and quantity of potholes we do. Could that be due to less traffic? Maybe but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

    I can point to examples in my own area where a road was just repaved a year or two ago, and it now has waves and potholes due to the frost. I can point to other examples where towns simply can’t be bothered to fix roads that are on the edge of town. Finally, pretty much everyone is familiar with the potholes between the lanes of 128 where there used to be painted lane markers. On that latter example, why aren’t we suing the contractors? Clearly there was something about the paint that causes the pavement to break up.

    For the vast majority of people in the state, their most common interaction with government is driving on the roads. The extremely poor condition of the roads makes the state, literally and figuratively, look bad and reflects very poorly on those that are responsible for them. It also costs the drivers of the state substantially in terms of maintenance/repair and depreciation on their cars.

  3. Thank you for your post Paul – I pulled some data from the USDOT Federal Highway Administratio Office of Highway Policy Information “Highway Statistics Series

    I looked at the most recent (2011) state data for Vehicle Miles Traveled(VMT), Lane Miles, Capital Outlays (from all government sources) and Maintenance Outlays (from all government sources) to see how Massachusetts road spending compares across the 50 states.

    Massachusetts, as you would expect spends more than New Hampshire on maintenance and capital outlays, and maintenance and capital per lane mile. We have a significantly larger population and our roads are heavily traveled. What I find particularly interesting is that in the table below you will see that Massachusetts actually spends (capital+maintenance) a comparable amount of money on roads per VMT. I show the next significant digit in order to highlight the marginal difference in total $/VMT. Massachusetts spends $.048/VMT and New Hampshire spends $.052/VMT. Both states spend an identical amount on maintenance per VMT – $.017.

    The Highway Statistics Series has a lot of interesting information; I encourage you to explore it.

    Andrew Bettinelli
    Legislative Aide
    Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

    You can view a table of road spending here


  4. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for finding the data. You can explore the data some at:!ctype=c&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=s&met_y=Maintenance_St&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&idim=state:NH:MA:ME:CT:NJ:OH:NC&ifdim=state&hl=en_US&dl=en_US&ind=false

    Unfortunately, at first glance, it doesn’t show spending per mile. I’ll try to dig some more on that. However, in lieu of that I compared MA to NJ as it’s a similar size state with a similar population density (and, I assume, scale of road infrastructure). MA is always lower in spending than NJ across the number of years displayed.

    That said, I’m not sure spending really tells us much. Empirically, the roads in MA are pretty awful right now and roads in NH are better (once again, empirically based on my less than scientific survey). So it could be that MA spends more on roads overall because we have a lot more intersections than NH, and more sidewalks, bridges, etc. Certainly that would be consistent with more traffic density. Unfortunately, it seems that also takes away from spending on the quality of the road surface itself, which is the current problem. So maybe NH spends less on traffic lights which means they can spend more on building a thicker road bed to better contend with frost heaves. That’s a slightly educated guess on my part but here’s an example of how roads are built in other countries. Take note of how thick the road bed is under the asphalt:

    Every state faces different engineering challenges when it comes to roads. MA has to deal with the hand it’s been dealt in terms of weather and traffic and we need roads that don’t lead to unsafe driving conditions and unreasonable abuse on our vehicles. It certainly seems that’s where we are now.

  5. I have uploaded the work that I did in excel here, New Jersey does spend fractionally more on maintenance than Massachusetts /VMT and does spend more on capital outlays.

    I will see if I can find some information about road engineering standards and what the variations are across states.

    Andrew Bettinelli
    Legislative Aide
    Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

  6. One of the factors that is hard to control for is the kind of road way. Urban roads with curbs and sidewalks and a heavy flow of traffic that needs to managed during construction are much more expensive to maintain rural roads where it’s just a matter of laying down asphalt.

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