Highways in neighborhoods with high rates of family poverty, concentrated minority populations, and urban areas are more likely to be in bad condition than the average highway road in the country, according to a new study by the Government Accountability Office, a federal agency. It claims to be one of the first studies of its kind to systematically compare highway pavement quality based on socioeconomic factors.
By law, state departments of transportation must submit a report every two years to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) describing the condition of the highways in the state. They also report targets for “good,” “fair,” and “poor” pavement ratings—”fair” are highways with cracks, “poor” are ones with potholes—to be measured every four years. Generally, no more than five percent of a state’s interstate system lane mines can be in poor condition, according to the GAO. It combined these reports with geospatial analysis and Census data to analyze how pavement quality differed by socioeconomic factors like income and race, something the FHWA does not itself do.
The GAO broke down the results by grouping Census tracks into quartiles, the first quartile being the lowest percentage of “underserved racial and ethnic population,” as the GAO put it, and the fourth quartile being the highest. Similarly, the analysis for poverty rates put the richest people in Quartile 1 and the poorest in Quartile 4. In both cases, Quartile 4 had a higher percentage of highways in poor condition and a lower percentage in good condition. For the racial and ethnic minority breakdown, Quartile 4 had nearly three times the number of highway miles in poor condition than Quartile 1—3.7 percent compared to 1.3 percent. And the tracts with the highest percentages of minority residents had 15 percent fewer lane miles of road in good condition compared to the first quartile. This was a bigger difference in poor road quality than the breakdown based on poverty rates, where the fourth quartile had 3.2 percent in poor condition versus 2.3 percent in the first quartile.
The biggest difference, though, was the comparison of urban versus rural roads, where 4 percent of urban roads were in poor condition compared to 1.2 percent rural and suburban roads.
These differences may not seem big in absolute terms, but they’re quite large in relative ones. The actual differences are also larger than raw numbers show, because they don’t account for other factors like population density, traffic numbers, and climate, which will also affect pavement quality. After controlling for those factors, GAO found that urban neighborhoods with a low percentage of underserved populations have a 22 percent chance of good pavement versus a 7 percent chance for areas with high percentages of underserved populations. For rural areas or small towns, the chance of good pavement is almost 60 percent for white areas. But for minority areas, the chances of good pavement go down to just 30 percent. These differences are greater than measuring based on poverty rates alone.
It has been well-documented by highway engineers that driving on poor roads increases fuel consumption and operating costs, because cars are more likely to break down on rougher, poorly maintained surfaces. GAO’s findings suggest that the higher likelihood of poor road conditions in their neighborhoods acts as an added tax on minorities and low-income U.S. residents, increasing the amount of money they spend on gas and also making the sudden need for emergency repairs more likely.
The GAO report did not offer any theories for the widespread discrepancy in road conditions, but it is another example of how structural racism and classism has become deeply embedded in modern institutions.
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