By Dennis Polhill

In 1986, Colorado drivers were paying a gasoline tax of $.12 per gallon. Since then, the tax has gone up 83 % to $.22. Over that same period, what has happened to the condition of our highways?

Roads have gotten progressively worse to the point where many have the look and feel of a third-world nation. By the state’s evaluation, in 1987, 18% of our roads were in “poor” condition. Five years later, in 1991, after all of that extra money was spent, had our poor roads improved? Not exactly-in fact, 42% of our roads were judged “poor.”

Colorado’s highway system is 78,043 miles long. The distribution of operation and maintenance responsibilities is:

Colorado State Department of Transportation 9,160 miles
Colorado’s 267 cities 10,725 miles
Colorado’s 63 counties 58,158 m

Road Mileage Distribution

Colorado’s condition monitoring system is limited to a good-fair-poor visual rating performed by each of the 331 entities that share the Highway Users Trust Fund (HUTF). HUTF is funded by Colorado’s gasoline tax which is currently at $.22 per gallon – 20% above the national average state gasoline tax of $.1832 per gallon. Money drawn from HUTF is based on a formula established by the State Legislature that accounts for condition, miles, and population. Local entities have wide latitude on how to use HUTF funds, including planning, design, construction, maintenance, appurtenances, and the assumption of bonded indebtedness. The $.22 per gallon tax generates $505,900,000 per year which is currently shared: $248,100,000 to CDOT; $95,100,000 to counties; $61,000,000 to cities; and $101,700,000 to bridges, overhead, and miscellaneous.The trend in surface condition of the State highway system has not been reflective of the increased funds available.

Surface Condition
Surface Condition

1987 1988 1989 1992 1921
Good 42% 42% 41% 32% 21%
Fair 40% 38% 41% 40% 37%
Poor 18% 20% 18% 28% 42%

 The proportion of roads in poor condition has increased from 18 % to 42 % (a 133 % increase). The proportion of roads in good condition has decreased from 42 % to 21 % (a decrease of 50%). In other words, over twice as many roads are in the poor category and half as many roads are in the good category. In spite of the significant increase in revenues for roads, condition has plummeted. The probable cause is that the resources are not being managed efficiently.Colorado’s gasoline tax was below the national average until 1986. In 1986, it was increased 50% (from $.12 to $.18). Subsequently, the gasoline tax was raised to $.20 in 1989 and to $.22 in 1991 (roughly 10% more each time). The total increase from 1986 through 1991 was from $.12 to $.22. This $.10 increase represents an 83.3 % increase in just six years.

Colorado’s Gas Tax

The idea of pavement management grew from the infrastructure crisis of the 1980s. Pavement management recognized that:

  1. Limited resources are available for maintenance.
  2. Pavements, like all physical facilities, deteriorate at an accelerated pace as they age.
  3. Maintenance can be applied at appropriate times to extend life, sustain service levels, and reduce long term costs.
  4. Computer technology and sophisticated mathematical techniques can be employed to manage massive amounts of data and seek optimal application of resources (i.e., maximum benefits for minimum cost).

The potential benefits of such management systems are enormous. Nationally about $15 billion per year is spent on maintenance. Few governments use pavement management systems; however, most experts agree that at least 50% of the $15 billion is lost due to inefficient use of resources. This, of course, is only a fraction of the total cost. Because the roads operates at lower service levels, car repair is greater; delay and travel time is greater; accident and personal injury is greater; and less comfort or service is supplied to the customer at a higher fee. The costs of all of these factors combined total several hundred dollars per capita per year.

Sophisticated management systems are most quickly adopted by the most professional and least political governments. These governments tend to be those with the shortest chronological history and the most limited bureaucracy. Thus, the most innovative governments tend to be cities with populations between 50,000 and 250,000 people. State agencies, which often must lead, cannot lead because of their entrenched decision making structure and tradition. Colorado is no exception. The Colorado Department of Transportation has been very slow to recognize the benefits of pavement management systems and to attempt to capture benefits. In recent years, CDOT has begun the regular and consistent collection of some condition data over the full extent of the CDOT portion of Colorado’s highway network. Far more work is needed to evolve this data into a full fledged management system.

Without the benefit of pavement management systems, it is very tempting to apply the cosmetic approach to highway maintenance. That is, thin overlays that make roads look new for the short term-until after the next election. Long term benefits are sacrificed. The following graph provides an understanding of pavement performance, serviceability, and the benefits of properly timed maintenance.

Pavement Life Cycle

  • Area “A” represents the service benefit of a thin overlay placed at time “A” on a pavement’s life cycle.
  • Area “B” represents the service benefit of the same thin overlay placed at time “B” on a pavement’s life cycle.
  • NOTE: In both cases the benefit is the relative area under the respective curve.

Since the cost of “A” and “B” are the same, it is clear that “A” is the wiser choice. “A” produces far more benefit than “B.” As the graph illustrates, pavement maintainance earlier in the pavement life cycle produce much more long-lasting road quality improvement than the same maintainance later in the pavement life cycle.

What may have happened in 1986 when more money was available for roads, pressure to show immediate results motivated a public policy of mismanagement in which resources were applied for effect rather than for results. A fully functioning pavement management system would have helped to avoid this public policy error.

The other trap that policy makers fall into when they do not have the information that pavement management systems provide, is that money is diverted from maintainance and into construction. The result is that a politician gets to cut a ribbon in the short term. In the long term user fees have been diverted to subsidize growth on the urban fringe and maintenance has been deferred and will cost more money latter.