Metro

Evan Horowitz

Mass. roads among busiest — and worst funded — in US

Most Massachusetts roads are considered to be in “mediocre/fair” condition, according to an analysis.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
Most Massachusetts roads are considered to be in “mediocre/fair” condition, according to an analysis.

Signs of spring abound in Massachusetts: White landscapes are dissolving into green, buds are breaking through the long-frozen ground, and tire-puncturing potholes are cratering our once-smooth roads. Those potholes are a reminder that our transportation system is much bigger than just the winter-plagued T.

Our roads and bridges have their own set of problems; Massachusetts’ streets are among the most densely packed and highly traveled in the country, and yet we commit less of our money to roadways than any other state.

How big is our transportation system?

The cities and towns of mainland Massachusetts are knit together by 36,000 miles of roadway. Each day, those roads carry millions of people to work and school, dates and errands. In a year, Massachusetts drivers log about 56 billion miles — enough to take them back and forth to the sun 300 times.

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That’s a lot of driving. Only a handful of states can match that level of road use. Throw in our changeable weather conditions and Massachusetts roads end up with more than their share of wear and tear.

Most used
roads
Least used
roads
HawaiiSouth Dakota
New JerseyNorth Dakota
CaliforniaMontana
MarylandNebraska
MassachusettsKansas

Source: FHA

How much do we spend?

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Massachusetts spends roughly $2.5 billion each year on roads and bridges — which is actually quite low compared to other states.

$2.5 billion is only about 0.6 percent of our state economy, and no other state spends so little of its available resources.

Source: Census, BEA

Data: Roadway spending as a share of state GDP

Another way to think about this $2.5 billion number is that it amounts to less than 5 cents for every mile traveled. That’s below the national average of 5.3 cents and less than 35 other states.

Some estimates suggest that we are underfunding transportation needs (including roadways and the T) by as much as $1 billion. A more targeted survey of cities and towns found that communities were getting less than half of what they need to fix local roads.

Does this mean our transportation system is in terrible shape?

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Not terrible, no. Most Massachusetts roads are considered to be in “mediocre/fair” condition, according to a TRIP analysis of information from the Federal Highway Administration. That means they probably need some maintenance but nothing too drastic.

Just 11 percent of our major roadways are in poor condition, and the rest, roughly 16 percent, are officially in good shape.

Bridges are a separate area of concern. Currently, about 9 percent of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient, and another 43 percent are functionally obsolete. Slowly but surely, the state has been chipping away at this problem with a dedicated bridge-repair program.

What are the benefits of transportation spending?

Smoother roads, sturdier bridges, and a system that allows millions of people to move easily around the state. There’s also a well-documented benefit to businesses, which rely on public roadways to get their supplies in, their goods out, and their employees to work.

So what’s the problem?

Transportation is one of those areas where long-term planning and consistent funding are essential. It’s hard to make far-reaching investments if you can only cover the first year of a new bridge project, or the first phase of the shift to all-electric tolling.

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Over time, our funding system has become less reliable. For years, states and the federal government relied on gas taxes to fund projects. But as cars have gotten more fuel efficient, and inflation has eaten away at the value of the gas tax, this funding source has become less useful.

For now, there’s little consensus about a consistent way to replace this lost funding. Instead, there are regular legislative battles about where to find the money, and greater uncertainty about which long-term investments are really feasible.

Is it more important to fix roads or the T?

Rather than pitting roads and transit against each other, it may be best to think of them as a single, integrated system.

Take the bus; it’s the workhorse of the T, carrying more people each year than any subway line (Red, Orange, Blue, or Green) — and three times as many as the commuter rail. Yet it runs on roads, not rails.

Buses work best when the state’s roads are well-maintained. Just as roads run smoothest when some people leave their cars behind to take the subway. This is one reason the state created MassDOT in 2009: to bring together all of the different transportation agencies and create one governing vision. And as we move from winter’s buckled T to spring’s buckled roads, it’s a reason to think broadly about the needs of our entire transportation system.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz