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Report says Mass. roads are in good repair, contrary to reports from state officials

It’s a surprising claim to anyone who drives in the state: Massachusetts roads are not that bad. In fact, they are pretty good, at least according to a California think-tank.

A study published Thursday by the Reason Foundation says the Commonwealth’s roads are significantly better than they’ve been in almost two ­decades.

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Good roads are good news for the state, but the report could work counter to state officials, who are citing a crumbling system of highways and bridges as they make the case for more money for improvements to Massachusetts’ transportation infrastructure. But state officials said that continued improvements are necessary to accommodate changing transportation needs and keep highways built in the 1950s from showing their age.

According to the study, which was released Thursday, Massachusetts, along with most other states in the country, made major improvements in highways between 1989 and 2008, the most recent year in which data was available to researchers. Those improvements include better interstate road conditions, declining urban congestion, and decreased highway fatality rates.

“Overall, really to our surprise, the road system for the US as a whole has actually ­improved quite a bit,” said ­David Hartgen, emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lead author of the report.

In one major category, the state came up short: bridges. According to the study, the number of deficient bridges in Massachusetts grew by 9 percent, the third worst percentage change in the country after ­Hawaii and Alaska. But those results are from five years ago, before the state began its accelerated bridge program that has repaired 115 of more than 400 deficient bridges in the state.

Urban congestion in Massachusetts was reduced by 26.9 percent, the second most dramatic improvement in the country, the report said.

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Trends in the Bay State were largely reflected nationally. Road and bridge fatality rates dropped in every state during the 19 years studied, and 40 states saw improvements in the quality of bridges.

“That does not mean that we do not need to work on things, and that we should fold up our tents and spend the money on beer,” Hartgen said. “That wouldn’t be appropriate.”

In recent months, as Governor Patrick pushes for a revamped transportation program that would require major tax hikes, he has said investment in the state’s transportation infrastucture is critical in coming years to maintain safe and effective travel for residents. His plan includes at least $2 billion earmarked for highway improvements.

Frank DePaola, highway ­administrator for the state ­Department of Transportation, said while the study shows that Massachusetts is headed in the right direction, major improvements must still be made.

“If you went out today, you would say that most of the roads in Massachusetts are in good condition,” he said. “But if we stop paving, they would ­deteriorate fairly quickly.”

Some of the money the state plans to use on highway improvements, DePaola said, ­addresses issues not identified in the report: lack of sidewalks, bicycle use, intersections with lots of crashes, or access for those with disabilities. Other roads must be rerouted to accommodate changing traffic patterns or areas with burgeoning economic growth.

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