Golden State Highways Are A California Nightmare

A San Francisco pothole i i

A pothole on the eastbound side of Market Street between 4th and 5th streets in San Francisco in 2008 California's urban roads are ranked the worst in the nation. Neal Patel via Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Neal Patel via Flickr
A San Francisco pothole

A pothole on the eastbound side of Market Street between 4th and 5th streets in San Francisco in 2008 California's urban roads are ranked the worst in the nation.

Neal Patel via Flickr

California is known for its car culture. But it turns out those wheels are rolling over some of the worst roads in the nation. A recent study ranked California 49th out of the 50 states for the quality of its pavement. New Jersey came in last. But California has the distinction of having the nation's worst roads in urban areas.

A Rough Ride

None of this comes as any surprise to truck driver Randy Park. He logs about 500 miles a day for Apex Logistics, delivering crushed limestone from a quarry in the high desert to factories south of Los Angeles. The days can be long, but he gets to spend them in a state-of-the-art truck. It's a 2009 Freightliner with chrome on the dash and enough toggle switches for a jet plane

"I got this truck the first of this year," says Park. "It has 140,000 [miles] on it already."

One of his favorite features is the air bag that provides extra cushioning under the driver's seat. Even so, his head snaps back as he hits the first big pothole of the trip.

And there's really no avoiding the rough pavement. A recent study from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and a nonprofit group called The Road Information Program, or TRIP, identified the 20 urban areas with the worst roads in the nation. Eight of those urban areas are in California. Park's usual routes take him through at least two of them.

For example, there's a brutal stretch of I-10 east of Los Angeles. From high up in the cab of the truck the pavement looks like a patchwork quilt of asphalt and concrete. Every seam of every repair job can be felt in the cab. And so can every crack and pothole that repair crews have yet to touch. The trailers Park hauls clatter and clang over the crevices and bumps.

"When you hit a pothole enough times," explains Park, "it jars the front end, then the front end gets out of line, then the tires start wearing funny and then you start cracking the frame. Eventually, it just tears up equipment."

More Than Drivers Affected

Truck drivers aren't the only ones who dodge the impacts of rough roads. In San Francisco more than 60 percent of the streets are in poor condition. You think that's bad in a car? Try it on a bike.

Frank Chan at San Francisco's 1,000th pothole i i

San Francisco Bike Coalition operations director Frank Chan rides through the 1,000th pothole in San Francisco, in 2008. Kate Michelle McCarthy via Flickr hide caption

itoggle caption Kate Michelle McCarthy via Flickr
Frank Chan at San Francisco's 1,000th pothole

San Francisco Bike Coalition operations director Frank Chan rides through the 1,000th pothole in San Francisco, in 2008.

Kate Michelle McCarthy via Flickr

"People can crash and people have broken bones, unfortunately," says Neal Patel, a community planner with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The organization's members can't repair the streets themselves, says Patel, but they try to help out San Francisco's two-wheeled travelers by outlining potholes with long-lasting white chalk.

"When you have something that's circled," explains Patel, "you know something is up and coming and you're able to avoid it in the appropriate amount of time."

Whatever your vehicle, bad roads are costly as well as dangerous, says Frank Moretti, the director of policy and research for TRIP.

An Expensive Drive

"Quite simply, the rougher the roads in your community that you're driving on, the quicker that vehicles are going to start falling apart," Moretti says.

TRIP also calculated just how much bad roads cost individual motorists in additional maintenance. The national average is $335 a year. But "motorists in the Los Angeles urban area are paying the greatest additional vehicle operating costs of $746 per year."

One reason for the deterioration of the nation's roads is that vehicle traffic has gone up 36 percent since 1990. States can't come up with the money to deal with the stress that puts on the pavement. California, for example, is projecting a deficit in the next year and a half of more than $20 billion. But many states are strapped for cash. And if it weren't for the federal stimulus money, says Moretti, they might find their roads in even worse shape.

A Down Payment On Repair

"The stimulus funding was a very helpful down payment to hold their ground," says Moretti. "The challenge now... will be to put in place a long-term program that can start to turn the ship around."

Until that happens, however, truck driver Park will continue to bump across California highways, changing his route now and then to avoid the very worst patches "to save the equipment and my kidneys and my liver and my back."

Park has been doing this job for 17 years, and he likes it. If only he were paid by the bump — then he'd be on Easy Street.

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