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Poor, minority communities more likely to have bad roads, study finds

The findings highlight another challenge as the Biden administration seeks to create a more equitable transportation system

A pothole along a street in Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Poor communities, urban areas and those that are home to few White residents are more likely to have potholed, cracked and rutted roads, according to a new analysis of 220,000 miles of heavily traveled streets and highways across the country.

The study, released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, examined the conditions of road surfaces across the country and found the disparities are evident even after accounting for traffic volume and weather patterns.

The findings point to another inequality in the nation’s transportation network at a time when the Biden administration says it is trying to use money from the $1 trillion infrastructure law to build a fairer system. Federal officials have set aside money to dismantle highways built through Black communities in the 20th century, but the study shows some communities lack even basic investments that would bring smooth, paved roads.

Federal officials classify roads as being in good, fair or poor condition. Researchers found that in otherwise similar places, there was a 7 percent chance of a road in an urban neighborhood with almost no White residents being in good condition. In a nearly all-White urban neighborhood, that figure was 22 percent.

Traffic deaths increased during the pandemic. The toll fell more heavily on Black residents, report shows.

Kyle Shelton, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, said he wasn’t surprised by the results, adding that efforts to measure inequities in the transportation system are relatively new. He called the report a “steppingstone” that should spur additional research.

“This is the type of baseline study that needs to be done to say, ‘here’s where some of the issue areas are,’” he said. “The takeaway there is, ‘yep, there’s probably an equity issue.’”

Shelton said the results likely reflect a long-standing tension between building roads to support fast-growing suburbs and maintaining existing streets, as well as the lower level of access poorer communities have to political power.

Federal transportation funding is typically passed to state transportation agencies, which decide where to spend the money. Urban leaders have complained that those agencies tend to favor the needs of suburban commuters, who often are richer and Whiter than many city dwellers.

GAO researchers found the Federal Highway Administration does not routinely track differing road conditions within states or use its data to identify disparities linked to race and income. The watchdog office urged the agency to conduct its own analysis and develop strategies for ensuring more equitable investments in highways.

“Because FHWA has generally not analyzed pavement condition within states, such as at the local level, it lacks awareness of pavement issues that could pose risks to its strategic goals, such as concentrations of poor pavement condition within a state or differences that disproportionately affect underserved communities,” the researchers wrote.

The Transportation Department, which oversees the FHWA, said it partially agreed with the recommendations, adding that it planned to look at where federal road funding is spent.

“Using those results, the FHWA will identify potential strategies to help states mitigate investment decision-making processes that may potentially lead to inequitable outcomes,” the department wrote in a response to the GAO. The agency declined to comment further.

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The highway administration requires state transportation departments to set statewide targets for road conditions, but the analysis sought to demonstrate the differing conditions within states. The GAO analyzed the condition of roads on what is called the National Highway System, a 220,000-mile network that includes interstates and smaller roads, and accounts for more than half of the miles traveled by vehicle nationwide.

Researchers studied the road system in a handful of ways.

They broke the country into 8-mile-by-8-mile squares, identifying where more than 10 percent of major roads are in poor condition — well above the national average of 2.4 percent. That analysis identified clusters of bad roads in parts of California, Louisiana, New Jersey and Michigan, among other states.

Researchers then compared data on road conditions — typically looking at how rough the surface is — while factoring in demographic information to identify racial and income disparities. In the Whitest census tracts, 1.3 percent of roads were in poor condition, compared to 3.7 percent in areas with the smallest shares of White residents.

While the study didn’t examine local streets, Shelton said he would expect similar patterns to hold. He said more research is needed to build a picture of the nation’s entire road network.

“This is a new assignment for a lot of agencies, and I think what we’re witnessing across the board is this challenge of we don’t have a baseline understanding,” he said.

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The GAO report builds on other research that has found Black, Latino and Native American people are more likely to be killed in crashes, and that streets in neighborhoods home to high proportions of minority residents tend to be more dangerous. The Transportation Department has also identified longer commutes for people who don’t own cars and a higher burden of transportation costs on poorer families.

The department this year shared a plan to create a more equitable transportation system and has been including racial equity criteria as a consideration in its major grant programs.

The agency opened applications in July for funding from a new Reconnecting Communities pilot program, which will provide $1 billion to communities seeking to undo harm caused by highway construction. The money can be used to study removing highways or to find ways to reestablish links between neighborhoods with bridges or caps that cover sections of highway.

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