The Impact of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) on Rural Areas: Changes in Road and Bridge Conditions
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The Impact of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) on Rural Areas: Changes in Road and Bridge Conditions

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      This study asks how rural areas fared under the new, devolved ISTEA planning and funding provisions. While little systematic information is available on local official involvement in the planning process during the early ISTEA years, information is available on physical condition of roads and bridges in rural areas. This study uses that information to ascertain how the condition of rural roads and bridges changed during the ISTEA era. To do so, it uses two databases maintained by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) is a database of the U.S. public road system. States and localities annually collect highway data specified by the Federal Highway Administration; the data are then used to allocate Federal funding for eligible roads. The National Bridge Inventory (NBI) is a database of bridges on all public roads in the U.S. States collect bridge information according to specified criteria; the data are used to allocate Federal funding for bridge maintenance and replacement. Because HPMS collects detailed information on roads eligible for Federal funding only, this analysis pertains to federally-funded rural roads, not the local road system. The study uses HPMS data on road surface type, lane width, condition and average daily traffic to evaluate rural road condition changes during the ISTEA years. NBI data are utilized to examine the number of deficient bridges on public roads. Financing data are reviewed to examine level of funding for rural roads and bridges. HPMS data indicate that road surface types improved since the passage of ISTEA, with more rural roads having better paved road surfaces in 1997, the last year of ISTEA. Lane width, a measure of road safety, increased for federally funded roads. Condition, a measure of road roughness, improved during the ISTEA years. Bridges in rural areas demonstrated a dramatic improvement, with the most significant improvements taking place on Interstates and other national roadways. These improvements took place during a period of steadily increasing daily traffic: all categories of rural roads demonstrated an increase in daily traffic. Funding data indicate that funding across all rural road categories increased during the ISTEA years, and that the majority of these funds were dedicated to road improvements, not new construction. While study findings indicate overall improvement in rural road and bridge condition during the ISTEA years, several trends emerged from the data. First, a growing divergence appeared in condition between rural roads serving local traffic and those serving national travel. Road and bridge conditions improved more for those roads serving national travel than for local roads. Since these improvements took place during a period of increased Federal funding, a second question arises with respect to future funding and its impact on roads serving local traffic. That is the possibility that reductions in funding might result in greater condition differences between local roads and those serving national travel.
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