Rural America Needs Road Infrastructure Investment the Least

But Trump's infrastructure plan will give it to them anyway.


Bridge under construction
Lev Kropotov/

While much of Donald Trump's forthcoming infrastructure proposal is said to focus on encouraging local, state, and private investment, a big portion of it will still be traditional federal pork. That includes a likely $50 billion for rural infrastructure projects.

Yet according to a new study on highway conditions put out by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that also publishes this website), rural America is the place that needs this money the least. With few exceptions, rural states' roadways are performing head and shoulders above their more urbanized peers.

The western states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all ranked in the report's top 10. So did South Carolina and several Great Plains states—Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas. These states have maintained their rural arterial roads and interstates in better condition. They have also spent comparatively less per mile on building new roads and maintaining old ones.

North Dakota, which ranked number one in the rankings, spent $4,088 per mile to maintain its state-controlled roadways. New Jersey, by contrast, spent $208,736 per mile. South Carolina, which ranked fifth overall, spent $15,675 on capital and bridge disbursements per mile. Compare that to, well, New Jersey, which spent $919,040 per mile.

That isn't merely a matter of roads getting more wear and tear in the more densely populated states. "The rural states do tend to spend money better," says Baruch Feigenbaum, one of the authors of the report. "The rural states tend to spend their roadway dollars on state roadways." Conversely, many of the states that rank poorly devote a lot of federal highway dollars—and state gas tax dollars—to urban transit and to projects not related to transportation at all.

You shouldn't give rural politicians and bureaucrats too much credit for that, Feigenbaum notes. Their states just tend to lack the large urban projects that draw away dollars that should otherwise be spent on highways.

"In Wyoming," Feigenbaum says, "there are just not a lot of metropolitan needs."

Unsurprisingly, these rural states score better when it comes to congestion, too. Wyoming commuters spend only 5.86 hours in rush hour traffic each year. In New Jersey, the number is 72.53.

Again, this reflects a lack of major urban centers, not some amazing Wyoming ability to design congestion-free roads. It does, however, demonstrate that there is not much demand for major new road infrastructure projects in these states.

Despite this, Trump's infrastructure proposal looks likely to include a healthy slab of pork for rural states. According to a leaked "funding principles" document from January, 25 percent of the $200 billion federal appropriations component of the infrastructure plan will be awarded to rural governors with essentially no strings attached.

That has much more to do with politics than policy. As Feigenbaum says, "It's pretty obvious the rural funding is designed to get the bill through the Senate. It's not merit based."

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    1. #ElectionsHaveConsequences

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  2. North Dakota … spent $4,088 per mile to maintain its state-controlled roadways. New Jersey, by contrast, spent $208,736 per mile.

    ND’s roads are mostly cowpaths and NJ, by contrast, has I-95 and the Garden State Parkway.

    1. I’ll take the cowpaths.

      1. They have less icky stuff on them than do the NJ Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

        1. Mafia hit blood stains?

          1. Today, my temp agency sent me to unload trucks at the loading docks in a couple of New Jersey malls instead of sending me back to Monday’s construction site. The highway was covered in the remains of a large pileup. We passed it going from one mall to another. Last night, I started my first of several public complaints about a non-profit that helps recovering drug addicts, homeless people, mentally ill people, and guys fresh out of jail.

            After work, I bought a ring, because I had made plans to see my boyfriend in Europe. The clerk told me that someone just told her about the pileup. I said that I had seen it on the way to the mall and blamed it on the hex my ex-wife put on me at the start of our divorce. *Sigh* Marrying into a Russian family makes your life more interesting.

            1. …my boyfriend in Europe … my ex-wife …

              My condolences to the ex-wife.

            2. Ok, I’ll say it: cool story bro

      2. I’ll take the cowpaths.

        One of the sadder moments of my libertarian life when my own Mother gave me the ‘muh roadz’ argument. Exceptionally sad because we both grew up on gravel roads that are no longer gravel.

    2. Sez the guy who has very clearly a) never driven in ND and b) doesn’t understand what cost per mile means.

  3. I have it on good authority that NOT spending money on rural infrastructure is white genocide, though.

  4. OTOH, people in rural areas actually need roads, because they can’t just walk to places or take mass transit.


    1. But then how can government control their movements?

  5. ROADZ!


  6. Help me out here, is this a “REASON cosmotrians hate real Americans” story or a “Cities deserve to crumble and die because they elect Democrats” story? I’m unsure which flavor of ignorant outrage to express here.

    1. They’re not mutually exclusive by any means.

    2. I’m unsure which flavor of ignorant outrage to express here.

      Come on, Hugh. Nobody believes that.

    3. Maybe sift through the Reason archives, look at the total number of articles of each, compare and contrast the egregiousness of the violation of libertarian principles in each, see how generally the author dismisses either the violation or the concern(ed parties) in the name of some greater liberty and then get back to us.

      1. I have never seen a Reason post say that inner city residents should move out of the city to improve their lives, but a few Reason posts said that rural people should move to cities that have jobs to improve their lives.

        1. The correct answer is libertarians should move out of the major coastal cities, to midsized to small large cities, in more liberty friendly states. I’m probably moving to Idaho in the next couple years for this reason. You can basically live like a king on a fraction of the income, have lower taxes, and more freedoms across the board. I don’t smoke dope, but no legal weed is about the only freedom I can think of I will theoretically be losing by moving there.

          Truth is 500K on up metro areas are big enough to have jobs in most industries, but not stupid expensive. They’re really the best of both worlds IMO. Boise and the Spokane metro are both about 750K, and both still growing. They’ll bust 1 million long before I die. That’s not a bad sized city, but it doesn’t cost 700K for a house in a BAD neighborhood like it does here in Seattle now.

  7. Looking at the Congestion hours from the report, Iowa has the third least.

    As near as I can tell from my rare trips through Des Moines at peak of what passes for rush hour, once you get on either of the interstates, the normal delay is like 1-3 minutes when going East to West no matter if you take the loop around, or go straight through the center of the city.

    Not bad for a city of over 200k people.

    1. Racist!

    1. Where’d the original of that cartoon come from? I assume it was repurposed & recaptioned.

  8. Yet another unnecessary Cosmo salvo directly at Yokeltaria.

      1. He usually does and he usually does it first.

        1. Poor Mrs. Fist.

          1. It’s okay, he’s too busy trolling Reason to even initiate sex.

    1. The Yokeltarian response will be determined as soon as Jeb, Billy Joe, and Ray-Ray get back from noodling.

      1. What happened to Tray and Skeeter?

        1. Skeeter’s laid up with a busted tailbone, but Tray is already at the meetin’ place (though he might be asleep in the yard).

        2. Hey, what’s Cletus, chopped possum kidneys?

      2. The Yokeltarian response will be determined as soon as Jeb, Billy Joe, and Ray-Ray get back from noodling.

        Fuckin’ know-nothing slickers. Noodling doesn’t happen until spawning season the warmer the water, the better. It’s bird season right now.

        1. #Treated!!! City folk just don’t get it

  9. How many city slickers voted for Trump? I mean on a comparative basis.

    1. Compared to other cities?

      Compared to fly-over land?

      Compared to suburbanites?

      Compared to exurbanites?

      Compared to our native American friends penned in on reservations?

      1. Nobody is penned in on a reservation. They are all free to leave and live by the same rules the rest of us have to follow anytime they want.

    2. Less than 50% of them – that’s all that matters.

    3. Do Staten Islanders count as city slickers?

      1. No, they count as garbage hill dwellers.

  10. No one should have to be forced to say, when giving directions, ‘then turn off the paved road’?

    1. Similarly, I should not be denied to opportunity to say that when giving directions to my house.

    2. Gravel and dirt roads discourage the casual city slicker. I am strongly in favor of them.

  11. Considering the costs in places like NJ, it seems giving them the money will get you less bang for the buck.

    Maybe they’ll follow in FDRs footsteps where WPA funds were prioritized to maximize votes (I’ve heard that a NJ WPA administrator would answer his phone ‘Democratic Headquarters’ for example),

    I’d rather expect that WI, PA, MI, FL, NC, and OH get first dibs.

  12. I notice a strong, albeit not 100%, correlation between Democrat-controlled states and shitty roads. Compare the election map to study’s map.

    What the hell are they doing with all those taxes anyway? Clearly not taking care of the infrastructure.

    Hell, I’ve driven around Alaska, and to see that New Jersey (and Rhode Island) ranks below Alaska…wow.

    1. Alaskan roads, or lack thereof, has made bush piloting a thriving industry.

      1. My nickname in college was bush pilot.

        1. I went to college in the early 2000’s, there wasn’t ever any hair there

    2. Seriously. In Seattle, which has had revenue DOUBLE in just the last 3 or 4 years, they are spending money on stupid shit like putting in fancy bike lane dividers etc everywhere… But the roads are all trashed, giant pot holes everywhere.

      It’s totally misallocation of spending, not lack of funds. Some states just take care of business, while others piss it away on ideological stupid shit.

  13. If you want to sell an infrastructure program, give rural states the money to build highways: They’ll take it. In urban areas you are almost certain to have some group protesting the construction of new roads no matter where you propose to build them. And those urban protestors are much more likely to have the sympathy of the Press than would any bunch of rural dissidents.

  14. Bill Gate’s smart city will be big enough to house about 180,000 and cost $80 Million. At that rate, $50 Billion in infrastructure spending is enough to build smart cities that house about 110 Million Americans. That’s enough to make residential areas in the interior for plenty of Americans displaced if the sea level rises. Abandoning the coastal cities makes more sense than trying to stop global warming.

    1. Bill Gates’s smart city will be Brasilia with fiber optics, solar panels and windmills running on Windows10.

      Good luck.

      1. You have to have spent some time in Brasilia and know its history to understand what a harsh burn that is.

  15. In New Jersey, the number is 72.53.

    The number for people who actually have to commute on the Parkway or Turnpike every day is probably more like 480.

  16. In New Jersey, the number is 72.53.

    The number for people who actually have to commute on the Parkway or Turnpike every day is probably more like 480.

  17. The boonies lag behind in broadband.

  18. It is amazing that you naively repeat the study’s claim that its not the usage that is the cause of the cost difference. The author of the study is either a moron or has an agenda.
    Do you have no concept of the truck traffic around urban centers….how much tonnage of goods travel through states like NJ, and the wear and tear that tonnage puts on road?

  19. The article is off topic.
    We are not talking about efficient building of roads, we are talking about federal boondoggles.
    Infrastructure spending has nothing to do with road quality or commute times.
    Look at legislative districts, not where roads go.

    1. Even accepting the premise of the article, they still miss the point. Money going to less populous states would be spent more practically than money sent to states with large metropolitan areas.

  20. It’s dumb Trump is going to misspend, because there are real infrastructure issues to deal with… But he gots to buy his votes like all politicians do! That and he is a life long blue dog Democrat, so it’s not like anybody really expected him to be that fiscally conservative. I’m surprised he hasn’t been worse honestly.

  21. This is for infrastructure generally right? The article is about roads because this is Reason and Reason thinks roads to get to the big city are the only ‘solution’ for rural America. Right?

    Rural areas need a lot of infrastructure. eg our medical system is entirely geared towards subsidizing specialists and hospitals and then concentrating them both on pill hills. That is an urban subsidy that is excessive for rural areas – but rural areas need clinics and PCP’s and those docs are not going to magically and uniquely build their own infrastructure while accepting lower payments. There are 6000 areas with severe doctor shortage – third world level shortage in many cases. Local PCP’s are exactly what will lower ‘rural’ Medicare expenditures.

    Libertarians here may pshaw at the idea of a county equipping a few offices and maybe a clinic/ambulance but that’s exactly what they have to do to attract a new MD out of medschool. Having a medical infrastructure better than third world is one of those things that can allow a small manufacturer to take advantage of the other cost-advantages (cheap labor, cheap land, cheap energy/food/commodity inputs) of that location – because the middle-class supervisors will want a doctor in the same timezone and maybe even a healthcare benefit. And that change is the sort of thing that can enable a local community college to leverage itself beyond a 2yr program far more cheaply than the overly subsidized 4-yr college system.

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