Most of the pavement on our nation's highways—covering about 220,000 miles of roads—is in good or fair condition. But highway pavement is less likely to be in good condition in urban areas, localities with higher family poverty rates, and areas with higher percentages of underserved racial and ethnic populations.
Poor pavement conditions can pose safety issues and affect traffic flow.
The Federal Highway Administration doesn't routinely look at data that states collect on local pavement conditions. Doing so could help the agency address issues that may be contributing to inequitable pavement conditions. Our recommendations address this issue.
County rates of poor pavement conditions on the National Highway System compared to the nationwide rate, 2019. (See report for more information.)
What GAO Found
Most pavement on the National Highway System is in good or fair condition, but the condition varies widely across and within states. Moreover, GAO found that pavement condition varies based on certain community characteristics. Even when controlling for factors such as climate type and traffic density, pavement is less likely to be in good condition on roads in census tracts with:
- higher percentages of underserved racial and ethnic populations—communities facing systemic barriers in accessing available benefits and opportunities (see figure);
- higher family poverty rates; and
- urban areas.
Probability of Pavement in Good Condition on the National Highway System by Underserved Ethnic and Racial Population Rate and Population Density Category, 2019
Note: Data for 2019 were the most recent full year of available data at the time of our analysis. For more details, see fig. 12 in GAO-22-104578.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) assesses whether states are making progress toward state-wide pavement condition targets. However, FHWA does not regularly examine data to assess pavement condition within states, such as at the local level. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and FHWA have strategic goals and objectives related to safe, efficient, and equitable transportation. Most transportation stakeholders GAO interviewed noted that pavement in good condition is safer or more efficient for travel. Because FHWA has generally not analyzed data about pavement condition at the local level, it lacks awareness of issues that could pose risks to its strategic goals, such as concentrations of poor pavement condition or differences across communities.
In response to executive orders, DOT is determining how to assess equity impacts for all of its programs, but, as of June 2022, has not identified what pavement-specific analyses it will conduct, if any. Additional analyses of poor pavement concentrations and the differences by community characteristics could help FHWA understand why these conditions are occurring. These analyses could also help FHWA identify strategies to help ensure that all communities have safe and equitable pavement conditions.
Why GAO Did This Study
The National Highway System is key to the nation's economy, defense, and mobility. It comprises approximately 220,000 miles of roads and accounts for about 54 percent of all vehicle miles traveled. Poor pavement condition on National Highway System roads could pose safety issues and impede the flow of traffic.
House Report 116-106 included a provision for GAO to review issues related to pavement condition of the National Highway System.
This report assesses the extent to which: (1) pavement condition varies on the National Highway System and (2) FHWA assesses National Highway System pavement condition within states, such as at the local level.
GAO analyzed pavement condition data from FHWA and other publicly available data sources and developed a statistical model to assess variation in pavement condition by community characteristics. GAO also reviewed applicable statutes, regulations, and agency documents and interviewed FHWA officials to understand the extent to which FHWA assesses pavement condition.
GAO is making two recommendations, including that FHWA analyze data on pavement condition within states and identify strategies to help states detect and address issues contributing to differences in pavement condition affecting certain areas and communities. DOT partially concurred with the recommendations and noted steps FHWA planned to address them.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Federal Highway Administration||The Deputy Administrator of FHWA should analyze pavement condition data, such as Highway Performance Monitoring System data, to examine the concentration of poor pavement in specific areas within states and differences in pavement condition by community or other characteristics, which could include race and ethnicity, poverty, or population density. Such an analysis could also incorporate more recent pavement condition data, control for additional factors that may affect pavement condition, or include statistical modeling of pavement conditions within a state. (Recommendation 1)|
|Federal Highway Administration||Based on the outcome of FHWA's analyses of pavement condition data, the Deputy Administrator of FHWA should identify potential strategies to help states detect and address issues that could contribute to concentrations in poor pavement and differences in pavement condition by community or other characteristics, which could include race and ethnicity, poverty, or population density. (Recommendation 2)|