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California’s Local Street and Road System In Crisis

by Margot Yapp (MPP '05)

Every morning, when we open our front door, whether we drive or bike to work, take our kids to school, take the bus or train, or go to the farmer’s market, we begin our trip on a city street or county road. 

But these are challenging times due to increased demand and unreliable funding. In California, there is a significant focus on climate change and building sustainable communities, yet sustainable communities cannot function without a well-maintained local street and road system. The need for multi-modal opportunities on the local system has never been more essential. Every component of California’s transportation system is critical to providing a seamless, interconnected system that supports the traveling public and economic vitality throughout the state.

Most of us are unaware that cities and counties are responsible for over 81 percent of California’s road system (over 143,000 miles). Yet historically, statewide transportation funding investment decisions have been made without local pavement condition data.

In 2008, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and the League of California Cities (League) sponsored a study to answer important questions: What are the current pavement conditions of local streets and roads? What will it cost to repair all streets and roads? What are the needs for the essential components to a functioning system? How large is the funding shortfall? What are the solutions? This study has been updated biennially since then and provides a critical piece in providing policymakers with a more complete picture of California’s transportation system funding needs.

All of California’s 58 counties and 482 cities were surveyed in 2016 and captured data on more than 99 percent of the state’s local streets and roads – a level of participation that makes clear the local interest in addressing the growing problems of crumbling streets and roads.
The local road system is composed of three categories: pavements, essential components (traffic, safety and regulatory) and bridges. 

Pavements

On a scale of zero (failed) to 100 (excellent), the statewide average Pavement Condition Index (PCI) has deteriorated to 65 (“at risk” category) in 2016. Even more alarming, 52 of 58 counties are either at risk or have poor pavements (the maps illustrate the changes in condition since 2008). 

In order to use the taxpayer’s money wisely, it makes more sense to preserve and maintain our roads in good condition, than to let them crumble further and spend more to fix them. The costs developed in this study are based on achieving a roadway pavement condition called Best Management Practices (BMP). At this condition level, preventive maintenance treatments (i.e., slurry seals, chip seals, thin overlays) are most cost-effective. Preventive maintenance interferes less with commerce and the public’s mobility and is more environmentally friendly than rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The importance of this approach is significant. As roadway pavement conditions deteriorate, the cost to repair them increases exponentially. For example, it costs as much as fourteen times more to reconstruct a pavement than to preserve it when it is in good condition. Even a modest resurfacing is four times more expensive than maintenance in the BMP condition. Or to put it another way, employing maintenance practices consistent with BMP results in treating as much as fourteen times more road area for the same cost.

By bringing the local roadway system to BMP conditions, cities and counties will be able to maintain streets and roads at the most cost-effective level. It is a goal that is not only optimal, but also necessary. 

Three funding scenarios determined that:

  1. The existing funding level of $1.98 billion/year is inadequate. The PCI will deteriorate to 56, the unfunded backlog will grow from $39 billion to $59 billion and almost a quarter of the road system will be in failed condition in ten short years. 
  2. In order to maintain existing conditions, at least $3.5 billion/year is needed. 
  3. To reach Best Management Practices, $7 billion/year is needed.  
Essential Components

The transportation network also includes essential safety and traffic components such as curb ramps, sidewalks, storm drains, streetlights and signals.  These components will require $32.1 billion to maintain over the next 10 years, and there is an estimated funding shortfall of $21.1 billion.

Bridges

Local bridges are also an integral part of the local streets and roads infrastructure. There are 12,501 local bridges (approximately 48 percent of the total) in California. They have an estimated shortfall of $1.7 billion to maintain the safety and integrity of the bridge infrastructure.

Total Funding Shortfall

The table below shows the total funding shortfall of $73 billion (constant 2016 dollars) over the next 10 years. For comparison, the results from the previous updates are also included.


What are the Solutions?

The conclusions are inescapable. Given existing funding levels available to cities and counties, California’s local streets and roads will continue to deteriorate over the next 10 years. It is alarming that local streets and roads have decayed to the point that funding will need to almost double just to maintain current conditions.

Investing in California’s local streets and roads sooner will reduce the need for exponentially more spending in the future. To reach that level – at which taxpayer money can be spent most cost-effectively – will require an additional $50.2 billion for pavements alone, or $73 billion total for a functioning transportation system, over the next decade. Only $2.5 billion per year will be needed to maintain the pavements after they reach a level at which they can be maintained with best management practices.

To bring the local system back into a cost-effective condition, thereby preserving the public’s $168 billion pavement investment and stopping further costly deterioration, $7.3 billion annually in new funds are needed – that’s equivalent to a 49-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. To the average driver, that’s an additional 67 cents a day. 

Failure to invest would be disastrous – not only for local streets and roads but for California’s entire interrelated transportation system. Failure to invest will impact our ability to increase alternative modes, active bicycle and pedestrian options, transit needs, meet air quality impacts, greenhouse gas reduction policies, and other environmental policies.

The ten-year efforts of CSAC and the League bore fruit in April 2017, when the Legislature passed and the Governor signed the Road Repair and Accountability Act. This raises over $5 billion a year in new revenues for transportation statewide, of which approximately $1.5 billion a year will go to cities and counties. Although insufficient to completely erase the shortfall, nonetheless, it represents an important first step for California’s policymakers to grapple with our transportation system. 

Margot Yapp is Vice President at Nichols Consulting Engineers.