Roads improve but still rough By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Western Pennsylvanias roads rate better than a year ago, but theyre still not as smooth as those in similar-sized regions around the country. In fact, the state-maintained highways and interstates in the Pittsburgh area are rougher than state roads in 10 of the 15 PG Benchmarks regions. Only roads in Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver are worse, according to the most recent "international roughness index" provided by the Federal Highway Administration.
The roughness index, used last year by PG Benchmarks for the first time, counts the number of inches per mile a laser-based device moves as it is driven along the road.
The lower the number, the better the ride.
The results from region to region are weighted by road length. The area measured in Western Pennsylvania includes routes in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Beaver and small portions of Lawrence and Butler counties. The most recent figures available are from 1997. Pittsburghs roughness index was 145, tying it with Portland for fourth-worst among the 15 areas. The smoothest roads belong to Atlanta, Phoenix and Minneapolis.
In last years PG Benchmarks, the Pittsburgh metro area recorded a roughness of 152, tying it for 11th. Those figures were from 1996.
Thus, the roads have improved in the last year, but Pittsburghs ranking has stayed the same.
Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Bradley Mallory could not be reached for comment.
State Deputy Secretary for Highway Administration Mike Ryan said, however, it is misleading to compare regions that differ so widely in terrain, traffic and weather. Also, he claimed, Pennsylvania maintains a greater proportion of lower-level roads than do other states, thus skewing its road-quality results. In fact, Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest highway system in the country, giving it more state-maintained roads than highway-heavy California, where the bulk of the roads are locally maintained. Separate the smaller roads from the equation and Pittsburghs expressways registered a roughness of 125 instead of 145 in 1997.
Western Pennsylvanias topography is another disadvantage, Ryan said.
"Its more difficult to get a smooth highway when you are paving uphill or downhill," he said.
"I think we are making progress on some peoples perceptions. The reality is that the roads have been getting better steadily for the last 12 years. People are beginning to notice the change. Not everyone is saying they drive on the worst highways in the country."
After all, nothing smoothes a road like money.
The state is spending $400 million to $500 million annually to improve the highways in its 40,000-mile system and requiring reconstruction or resurfacing on every road that rates rougher than 170 inches per mile. The goal is to fix every road that needs such work within two years, Ryan said.
Few areas need the touchup work more than Western Pennsylvania, where the state spent $219.1 million on major highway construction projects during the 1998 calendar year. The states transportation department also set aside $167.6 million in the 1998-1999 state fiscal year for more routine maintenance work, such as repairs to potholes and guardrails.
In 1998, the regions roughness rated 139, six inches per mile less than 1997. That should make it easier for the region to move up in next years rankings, or at least keep pace with the other PG Benchmarks metro areas.