Rural and Urban Roads

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

(June 28, 2013)–In an informational piece put out by the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the point is made that "…in densely populated urban areas, there just isn’t enough space to fit the roads that would be needed to move people around." The message of the piece attempts to persuade rural lawmakers to approve funding for mass transit.

The main argument is that in the five Pennsylvania counties with the smallest populations (Cameron, Sullivan, Forest, Fulton, and Potter), there are more feet of state-funded roads to serve a single resident (142) than there are in the five Pennsylvania counties with the highest populations (Philadelphia, Allegheny, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware) (5 feet per resident). The advocacy document concludes from those statistics that gas tax collected from urban areas moves to rural areas to fund road work and in return rural counties should be willing to move funds to urban areas to fund mass transit—which is necessary because of the lack of adequate road mileage.

This conclusion is based on a superficial evaluation and is not supported by rigorous, thoughtful analysis. First of all, the amount of state tax dollars spent on state roads is not simply a function of the number of miles of road but must also take into account usage levels, i.e., vehicle miles traveled on the roads and the types of vehicles using the road. Act 68 of 1981, directs PennDOT to distribute road money to county maintenance districts, "in the following manner: (40% RPQ + 15% BMD + 30%LM + 15% VM)." RPQ is the relative pavement quality index measuring the condition of the highway, BMD is the bridge maintenance deficiency index, LM stands for lane miles, and VM stands for vehicle miles traveled. Thus only part of the funding is based on the number of miles located within the county, the remaining variables take into account condition of roads, bridges and vehicle miles traveled. Municipalities receive money from the liquid fuels tax based on a formula that takes into account local road mileage, and population levels so that more populated municipalities receive more funding. Counties receive liquid fuel tax money based on a ratio of a county’s gas consumption relative to statewide consumption (based on the late 1920s).

But the crux of the argument implying miles of road is the only determinant of funding is not accurate. Usage plays a role as well. In fact PennDOT considers truck traffic more heavily than it does car traffic, as heavier trucks do more damage to roadways. In Allegheny County for instance, the Parkways, Routes 28, 51, and 65 are all very heavily traveled roads requiring a lot of upkeep. Rock slides on Route 28 are notorious. There are a considerable number of large trucks on these roadways making deliveries and hauling goods contributing to their deterioration.

Beyond usage levels, bear in mind that in urban areas the major roads will have, on a per mile of mainline roadway, very large numbers of interchanges, overpasses, as well as on and off ramps that also must be maintained. Also Allegheny County (as well as other urban counties such as Philadelphia and Dauphin (Harrisburg)) has a number of very old, very large bridges that are in almost constant need of maintenance such as the Ft. Pitt, Ft. Duquesne, Liberty, and many others. Finally, note that Allegheny County has a number of very old, expensive to maintain tunnels on principal arteries—Ft. Pitt, Squirrel Hill and Liberty.

Secondly, the Pittsburgh Chamber and Allegheny Conference advocacy piece does not take into account who is using the highways and where gasoline or other fuel taxes are being collected. For example, traffic on Interstate highways through rural counties is almost certainly dominated by vehicles passing through the counties. Indeed, a large share is coming from out of state and headed toward another state. This factor presents an extremely complicated situation as to who should pay and how to collect revenue. Ideally, users would pay a toll to cover costs of maintaining them but if all Interstates that are already built start tolling, then Pennsylvanians (cars and trucks) will get hit when they travel both in state and out of state. Thus, the notion of tolling must be thought through carefully. In the case of I-80 and I-79, there might be a persuasive argument but if trucks get off and begin using non-Interstates to avoid tolls will the state come out ahead? There is no way to say with any certainty without serious research and analysis.

Just to illustrate how complex all this is, here is a more detailed look at the usage issue. Using the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) 2012 Fact Book[1], we can look at some roadway facts.

According to the Fact Book, PennDOT is responsible for nearly 39,800 linear miles of roadway in the Commonwealth. The five urban counties in the advocacy piece have more than 3,700 PennDOT linear miles while the five rural counties mentioned have more than 1,300 miles. Thus the five urban counties have three times more linear miles of PennDOT roadway than the five rural counties in the comparison. They also have more local municipal roadways by a nearly 13 to 1 ratio. As mentioned above, linear miles is one factor in the funding formula for additional maintenance funds and the five urban counties in the formula actually have the advantage over the five rural counties, even if the per resident basis seems to suggest otherwise. The conversation should be about maintaining the roads and the use of scarce state resources to do so. Usage plays a very important role as it implies wear and tear—the greater is the usage, the more often a road will need maintenance.

PennDOT’s measure of usage, Daily Vehicle Miles of Travel (DVMT), for these counties shows that the five most populated counties had a total of more than 78.7 million DVMT, representing about 28 percent of the statewide total. Allegheny County leads the way with 23.15 million. The five counties with the lowest population totals had just over 2.48 million DVMT—about three percent of the statewide total. Only one rural county in the list tops one million DVMT and that is Fulton County which has part of the Turnpike running through it (19.15 miles).

To broaden the comparison, PennDOT’s Fact Book breaks out the two measures into rural and urban roadways in the Commonwealth’s 67 counties. According to PennDOT, there are 73,885 (62 percent) linear miles of rural roadways and 45,801 (38 percent) in urban areas. However, the urban road system receives two thirds of the DVMT (184 million of 277.3 million) and would be subject to more wear and tear and of course require more funds. Looking at it on a DVMT per mile basis shows usage in urban areas is greater than rural areas by a 4 to 1 ratio.

Total System Linear Miles DVMT DVMT/Linear Miles
Rural 73,885 93,207,444 1,261.5
Urban 45,801 184,085,599 4,019.3

The idea that more miles per resident necessarily means more funding for maintenance per resident is not an automatic conclusion. Maintenance depends heavily on usage and other factors as the PennDOT formula indicates. Before any claim of who is subsidizing whose roads can be made persuasively, a lot more research has to be done to answer the important questions outlined above.

Clearly, if one is going to argue that rural taxpayers should subsidize mass transit on the grounds that urban vehicles are paying taxes that support rural roads more heavily than rural road users are supporting urban roads, then a far more in depth look at road usage and maintenance costs and who uses the roads and where the taxes are paid must be undertaken. It is well known that damage to roadways is strongly tied to the weight transiting the roads. As mentioned above truck traffic is an important variable used by PennDOT in their evaluation of roadway maintenance for this simple reason.

There is one last point to be made. Mass transit users are already heavily subsidized. Fare revenue covers only 25 to 30 percent of operating costs. The state is providing a large portion of the remaining revenue to cover expenditures. It would be better to ask local communities who want mass transit to provide additional financial support to put a referendum question on the ballot to approve a local option sales tax or other broad based tax to raise money for buses and/or light rail. Those who benefit the most from a service should pay the most for it.

[1] Latest data available is 2010.

Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Associate
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President

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