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Reason report: U.S. highway conditions worsening in important categories

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This map from the Reason Foundation report on America's road shows how state fared in the rankings. (Courtesy: REASON FOUNDATION)

LOS ANGELES — After decades of incremental progress in several key categories, Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report finds the nation’s highway conditions are deteriorating, especially in a group of problem-plagued states struggling to repair deficient bridges, maintain Interstate pavement and reduce urban traffic congestion.

“In looking at the nation’s highway system as a whole, there was a decades-long trend of incremental improvement in most key categories, but the overall condition of the highway system has worsened in recent years,” says Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the Annual Highway Report and assistant director of transportation at Reason Foundation. “This year we see some improvement on structurally deficient bridges, but pavement conditions on rural and urban highways are declining, the rise in traffic fatalities is worrying, and we aren’t making needed progress on traffic congestion in our major cities.”

The 24th Annual Highway Report, based on data that states submitted to the federal government, ranks each state’s highway system in 13 categories, including traffic fatalities, pavement condition, congestion, spending per mile, administrative costs and more. This edition of the Annual Highway Report uses state-submitted highway data from 2016, the most recent year with complete figures currently available, along with traffic congestion and bridge data from 2017.

North Dakota ranks first in the Annual Highway Report’s overall performance and cost-effectiveness rankings of state highway systems for the second year in a row. North Dakota’s rural and urban Interstate pavement conditions both rank in the top 10 and the state has kept its per-mile costs down.  Virginia jumps an impressive 25 spots in the rankings—from 27th overall in the previous report—into second-place in performance and cost-effectiveness.  Missouri, Maine and Kentucky round out the top five states.

The state highway systems in New Jersey (50th), Alaska (49th), Rhode Island (48th), Hawaii (47th), Massachusetts (46th) and New York (45th) rank at the bottom of the nation in overall performance and cost-effectiveness. Despite spending more money per mile than any other state, New Jersey has the worst urban traffic congestion and among the worst urban Interstate pavement conditions in the country.

The study finds pavement conditions on both urban interstates and rural interstates are deteriorating, with the percentage of urban Interstate mileage in poor condition increasing in 29 of 50 states. One-third, 33 percent, of the nation’s urban Interstate mileage in poor condition is concentrated in just five states: California, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, and New York.

It’s not just urban Interstates with the rougher pavement, however, the Annual Highway Report finds the percentage of rural arterial principal roads in poor condition at its worst levels since 2000.

Similarly, the study’s three traffic fatality categories —overall, urban and rural—all show more fatalities in 2016 than in any year since 2007.

The most positive news is on bridges, where 39 states lowered the percentage of bridges deemed structurally deficient. Unfortunately, 18 percent or more of bridges remain structurally deficient in these five states: Iowa, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

Traffic congestion remains about the same from the previous report, with Americans spending an average of 35 hours a year stuck in traffic. Drivers in New Jersey, New York, California, Georgia and Massachusetts experience the longest delays due to urban traffic congestion in their metro regions.

The Annual Highway Report finds states disbursed about $139 billion for state-controlled highways and arterials in 2016, a four percent decrease from approximately $145 billion spent in 2015.

“Some may point to the slight decrease in overall state highway spending in 2016 as a cause of the lack of improvement in key highway metrics, but 21 states made overall progress in 2016. Examining the 10-year average of state overall performance data indicates that the national system performance problems are largely concentrated in the bottom 10 states,” Feigenbaum said. “Toward the bottom of the rankings, you have highly populated states, like last-place New Jersey, along with Massachusetts, New York, and California to a lesser extent, that are spending a lot but often failing to keep up with traffic congestion and road maintenance. There are also a few very problematic low-population states like Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii and Alaska, which contribute an outsized share of the nation’s structurally deficient bridges, poor pavement conditions, and high administrative costs—money that doesn’t make it to roads.”

New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut spent the most on their highways on a per-mile basis, with each state spending more than $200,000 per mile of highway it controls. In contrast, Missouri, which ranks third overall in performance and cost-effectiveness, did so while spending just $23,534 per mile of highway it controls.

Massachusetts ranks low in the overall rankings but shows the nation’s lowest traffic fatality rate, while South Carolina reports the highest.

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The Nation

Lane Departures: Why would California lawmakers saddle trucking with the ABC test?

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Well, he said he’d do it.

If you look elsewhere on this website, you’ll see a story I did about a week ago about AB5, a bill passed by the California Senate on September 10 into the waiting arms of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had long telegraphed he was looking forward to signing it.

Yesterday, he did it. And come the new year, trucking is going to have to live with it.

AB5 — the full name is the “Employees and Independent Contractors” bill — is ostensibly intended to prevent employers from exploiting workers and skirting expenses by relying on “independent contractors” to make their businesses run instead of hiring full-fledged employees, who come with all kinds of nasty baggage like guaranteed minimum wages, overtime and payroll taxes, mandatory breaks, insurance and other horrific profit reducers.

The bill got off the ground in the wake of a court case last year in which a delivery company called Dynamex was determined to have improperly reclassified its workers as independent contractors in order to save money.  In making the decision, the court applied what is known as the ABC test, which presumes all workers should be classified as employees unless they meet three criteria.

Like the court case, the bill, which will codify the ABC test across the state, seems to have been at least in spirit aimed at companies like Dynamex that are part of that there so-called “gig economy” all the young folks are so hopped up about. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are almost always mentioned as Public Enemies 1A and 1B of supposed independent contractor charlatans.

The problem with AB5, its critics say, is it proposes to perform an appendectomy with a chainsaw, ripping into industries that have long-established business models that extensively use independent contractors to the satisfaction of all involved.

A great big example would be trucking, because it appears the ABC test would prevent carriers from contracting with owner-operators or smaller fleets in California. I’ll let you imagine the consequences if that’s true.

If you’ve read the article, or your planning to read the article, I’d like to apologize in advance because as I’ve been learning about this AB5 business, I have some lingering questions that I could not answer. I have calls out to a couple of experts on the legal and logistical nuances. Unfortunately, experts don’t observe journalistic deadlines.

But then, I figured, this story is going to be around a while, so we can keep building on what we know. I may have answers to some of these questions by the time you read this. Or maybe you will be able to provide some of the answers. I mean, you don’t need to have a title or a degree or be part of a think tank to know a thing or two.

My first question is this: They didn’t pull this ABC test out of thin air. A majority of states already use the test in some manner on matters of job status. California’s application of ABC is based on Massachusetts’ broad, strict use of the test. So, hasn’t trucking had to contend with this standard there and in in other states already? I haven’t heard reports of empty store shelves in Massachusetts. Is there some simple workaround already in existence just waiting for cooler heads to prevail?

Second, from what I gather, ABC has had its critics for as long as it’s existed. Is it just the sheer size of California’s economy that makes this case so important or somehow different?

I’m going to go way out on a limb and say “probably.” Last year, California’s economy outgrew that of Great Britain. If it were an independent country, California would have the fifth-largest economy in the world. And what happens in California rarely stays in California. The state has a major influence on the rest of the nation.

California’s economy is closing in on $3 trillion a year. Real estate, finance, the entertainment industry and that nest of tech behemoths in Silicon Valley are responsible for big chunks of that.

And let’s not forget agriculture. California ranches and farms reaped $50 billion in receipts in 2017. That’s a lot of food, a lot of truckloads.

California also has some of the nation’s largest seaports. The Port of Long Beach alone sees about $200 billion in cargo a year, with 11,000 truckloads leaving the port each day. And most of what doesn’t go by truck from there eventually winds up on a truck somewhere inland.

Add it all up, and trucking is a huge player in the California economic machine. Why would lawmakers want to strip its gears with this law? Some lawmakers are even on record saying they are worried about what this could do to the industry. Then why are they doing it?

The bill’s sponsor, Democrat Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, is not some gung-ho rookie lawmaker. She’s in her third term, and she already has made a national name for herself as a champion of the working class with several pieces of legislation she has supported.

AB5 could fit into that collection quite nicely. But it isn’t a trophy she needs in a hurry. She won her last two reelection campaigns by about a 3-1 margin.

And she’s also been around enough that she surely understands that despite its best intentions, the broad-stroke, one-size-fits-all approach AB5 takes will do more harm than good to many industries, including trucking.

In fact, she’s as much as said so. Gonzalez has already indicated that once the bill becomes law, she’d be open to making amendments and granting exemptions.

So why wait? The bill already grants exemptions to real estate, to doctors and dentists. Even newspaper delivery people got a last-minute, one-year exemption.

The California Trucking Association and the Western States Trucking Association pushed for an exemption. Dozens of truck drivers testified in Sacramento. And you have to think state legislators are at least vaguely aware of what goes on in their own districts.

So, they could grasp the importance of the guy who throws a newspaper in their driveway from a passing car at 4 a.m., but not of the people who deliver, like, everything everywhere all the time?

We all know how long fixing bad legislation can take. Even if they put it on the “fast track,” how much damage will occur before trucking can get an exemption?

I did hear back from one legal expert on the matter. Greg Feary, president and managing partner at Scopelitus, Garvin, Light, Hansen and Feary LLC, said there are a couple of cases in Ninth Circuit Court that could spell relief for the trucking industry. Even so, the legal system can move almost as slowly as the legislative system. He estimates California truckers are going to have to live with AB5 for at least a year.

Questions abound. I’m not looking forward to some of the answers.

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The Nation

Trucking submarine style in Texas

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Texas is getting hit hard with flooding.  This takes it to new levels!


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The Nation

Flooding in Texas – That cab’s gonna be a bit damp!

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KHOU reporter Melissa Correa happened to be on scene and captured this video.  Another motorist grabbed a hammer and rope and saved the drivers life.

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