UDOT Director Carlos Braceras outlines why Utah has an excellent highway system

Utah has one of the best highway systems in the nation, according to the 26th annual Highway Report from Reason Foundation.

The report ranks Utah 6th best in the nation, measuring state highway excellence in 13 categories. The report has been issued continuously since 1994 and has been improved with more sophisticated analysis over the years.

The five states ahead of Utah are North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina.

The report was discussed Monday afternoon in a webinar sponsored by the Reason Foundation. Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras was invited to participate in the discussion and talk about how Utah manages to keep the state’s highways in good repair with modest congestion compared to other states.

The report showed that Utah spends a relatively high amount for construction and maintenance of highways and bridges. That actually brought Utah’s overall score down somewhat. But on pavement condition, congestion, bridge maintenance, and overall fatality rates, Utah ranks among the best in the country.

Braceras made the point that investing more in highways, which in this report reduced Utah’s overall score, results in better maintained highways, less congestion, and fewer fatalities. So, the investment is worth it if the money is spent wisely.

In Utah, Braceras said, transportation isn’t just about filling potholes or building new roads. It’s about Utah’s economy and quality of life. Utah’s governors, state legislators and the business community have made excellent mobility a high priority over the last 30 years, he said.

But they have also demanded that before making higher investments, UDOT must demonstrate that it is effectively using what funding it has. Since 1997, UDOT has produced an annual efficiency and innovation report. Some 131 different innovations were implemented just last year. State leaders have trusted UDOT enough to invest a significant amount of sales tax money in transportation and they also authorized a fuel tax increase in 2015.

Braceras noted that over last 10 years, Utah has been the fastest growing state in the country and is one of the nation’s most urbanized states. But it also has a lot of wide open spaces and thousands of miles of rural highways.

The UDOT director also talked about the importance of maintenance – “the less sexy part of our job.” The state has an immense investment in roads and bridges and it is crucial to maintain them well. And good maintenance saves money over the long run. The 2015 fuel tax increase allowed UDOT to better maintain rural roads and also spend more money on bridge maintenance. The cost of maintenance is less than letting roads and bridges fall apart and then completely rebuilding them.

Looking at challenges ahead, Braceras said it’s becoming increasingly clear that the motor fuel tax is not a sufficient long-term funding source for Utah’s highways. He said it’s important to maintain the correlation between what drivers use (the miles they drive), and the fair share they pay for that use. The fuel tax currently forces road users to directly pay at least a portion of the cost of good highways. As the fuel tax share of highway funding declines, the correlation between what drivers use, and the fair share they pay, is broken. 

To compensate for a declining fuel tax share, Utah is implementing a road usage charge system so that owners of hybrid and electric vehicles pay their fair share to maintain Utah’s highways, Braceras said. That will maintain the correlation.

He said he expects the fuel tax will continue to be important to highway funding for a number of years, but it will be a declining source of funding.