In recent years, Hawaii’s state-run highways and roads have held firm as some of the worst in the nation, the Reason Foundation’s latest annual report shows.
The Aloha State ranked 48th out of 50 for the overall cost-effectiveness and performance of its state roads, according to the D.C.-based libertarian think tank’s 2016 Annual Highway Report. Reason released its latest annual findings last week.
The results rely mainly on 2013 data and they reflect separate, earlier conclusions from a pavement consultant, which showed that state transportation officials went for years without the proper tools and training to keep Hawaii’s main roads and highways in decent shape.
The latest Reason report found that Hawaii, with the nation’s smallest state-run road network at 1,016 miles, in 2013 spent about 2-1/2 times the national average in total costs per mile: $405,269.
Despite that heavy spending, the report further found Hawaii’s roads to be the worst in the U.S. for urban pavement conditions.
“Unfortunately, it’s the worst of both worlds. We overpay and we under-receive,” said Panos Prevedouros, who heads the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.
“The statistics are reliable because these are self-reported numbers. They don’t paint a good picture for us,” added Prevedouros, who specializes in transportation.
The state’s roadways, which on Oahu include major arteries such as the H-1 freeway and Nimitz Highway but exclude smaller residential streets, have hovered near or at the bottom of the nonprofit’s national rankings going back to 2011.
But Hawaii faces unique road upkeep challenges as the nation’s only island state, situated remotely in the Pacific Ocean where material costs tend to be higher, according to Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara.
Having the nation’s smallest road network also helps drive up the state’s average cost per mile, he said.
“It’s like a small apartment and a big apartment — they still have the same appliances,” he said Monday, making a comparison to state road networks and the agencies that must maintain them.
“It’s impossible for us to be at the top” of Reason’s list, Prevedouros said. But “there is a lot of room for improvement.”
Hawaii might face some unique challenges, but it also avoids problems faced by mainland states, such as heavy interstate travel, Prevedouros said.
As part of Hawaii’s total costs, the Reason report found that the state spent nearly $78,000 per mile in administrative costs on its roads, while the national average for those costs was $10,051. Only Connecticut spent more per mile on administration than Hawaii.
Sakahara said most of Hawaii’s 2013 administrative total actually went toward debt service on DOT projects, and if stripped away the administrative costs per mile were closer to $18,000, which would “boost us significantly in the ranking.”
In 2013, more than 31 percent of Hawaii’s state roads were listed in poor condition — making it the worst in the nation for urban roadways, the Reason report found.
The state has struggled for years to properly maintain its roads. In 2008, Larry Galehouse, director of the Michigan State University-based National Center for Pavement Preservation, delivered federally funded recommendations to the state DOT on how to improve maintenance.
Galehouse had concluded that DOT staff lacked sufficient training, guidelines and tools needed to keep the roads in shape at least on par with roads in other U.S. regions. The suggestions in that report were disregarded for years.
Gov. David Ige, who took office in 2014, has recently shifted the state’s transportation priorities. Under Ige, the state has indefinitely deferred almost all major new highway projects to instead focus more of its resources on maintenance.
The DOT reports that it recently began using preventive maintenance techniques on Oahu that it had not regularly done before — including the use of so-called “crack seal” and other materials as Galehouse’s report recommended years earlier.
The agency applied crack seal to Moanalua Freeway this month, and more crack-seal work is planned for next month along the H-1 between Aloha Stadium and the airport viaduct, Sakahara said.
“The administration now is making significant improvements to make the maintenance better,” Sakahara said, adding that policy could lead to better grades in subsequent annual Reason reports for the Ige years.
Prevedouros said he believed the policy “may make the numbers even worse.”
Without adding more highway capacity, the state’s congestion grades for the Reason reports will likely worsen, he said.