California highways are in their best shape in more than a decade, which may shock motorists who are used to roads filled with potholes, cracks and hard-to-see lane markers.
According to a recent report from Caltrans, 42,000 of the 50,000 miles of California highways, or 84 percent, are in good operating condition. That's a jump from 75 percent three years ago and means 4,500 more miles of smooth roads than in 2011.
This is the best showing since 2001, when 79 percent of state roads were rated "healthy."
But state and local traffic officials caution that the news is mixed. A $3.9 billion infusion of cash over the past several years for paving is almost used up, and streets in many cities like San Jose and Oakland are in deplorable condition.
"If state highways are in better shape than they were, county and city roads are in worse shape than ever," said Debbie Hale, executive director of the Transportation Agency for Monterey County.
Added Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger: "Our highways are looking much better. The worry is the future. Our roads take a real pounding."
The focus on paving gained momentum in 2006, when state voters approved a multibillion-dollar bond for transportation fixes, and in 2009 with stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those two sources of funding provided $3.9 billion to pay for paving and repairing 18,000 miles of freeways and highways from Redding to San Diego. Among the roads repaired were I-80 from the Bay Area to the Nevada border, I-880 through San Jose and Oakland, I-680 in Contra Costa County and Highway 101 and El Camino Real along the Peninsula.
It's been noticed and appreciated.
"I hate a bumpy ride," said Megan White, of Hayward, who sometimes commutes on I-880 into Oakland. "It makes me ask where my tax dollars are going. But now the potholes seem virtually gone on 880."
Potholes are one way state officials measure the health of its roads. Last year Caltrans repaired 76,808 potholes, and that was down from 100,000 potholes in 2010 before the renewed repaving efforts.
Smoother roads, fewer bumps.
In addition, Caltrans has updated its pavement management system. In the '90s, pavement watchers reviewed sections of roads armed with little more than their eyes and experience. Today, they are using lasers, cameras and other equipment to document the condition so they can compare the deterioration from year to year.
"This allows the department to make better decisions on not only what type of treatment is needed but which section needs treatment first," said Randy Iwasaki, head of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and previously the deputy director of maintenance for Caltrans.
"This allows a better use of the existing pavement money and over time the health of the road gets better," he said. "You need to keep your good roads in good shape while reducing the miles that need to be rehabilitated."
In addition, Caltrans is increasingly using what is called cold-in-place recycling, which allows it to recycle and reprocess existing pavement without leaving the construction site to speed up the pace of repairs.
And faster repairs are vital. Preventive maintenance costs an average of $106,000 per mile, while major rehabilitation work is eight times more expensive.
But the future is worrisome. The state needs $2.8 billion a year over the next decade to maintain the current status, but only $685 million a year is now expected.
Meanwhile, cities are scrambling to upgrade their roads. San Francisco voters approved a $248 million repaving and street safety bond in 2011, but that is the exception. San Jose has a $339 million backlog of deferred pavement maintenance and an ongoing annual funding shortfall of $80 million. The average stretch of pavement in Bay Area cities is only in fair condition.
"We all use local streets and roads, including pedestrians and bicyclists," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "This is one of the most serious transportation issues we face as a region."
But for once, complaints have given way to action.
"This report is proof that investment in the system results in a safer and smoother drive," said Russell Snyder, executive director of the California Asphalt Pavement Association. "This benefits all Californians. Taxpayers should be pleased that their government put these dollars to good use and the results are noticeable and measurable."
The goal is to have 90 percent of state roads in good shape by 2023.
But earlier this year a proposed ballot measure that would have increased the vehicle license fee to raise $2.9 billion a year to pave roads and maintain train systems failed to gain support.
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.
State of California highways
2001: 79 percent of highway miles in good condition.
2010: 75 percent in good condition.
2013: 84 percent in good condition.
Needing work: 16 percent, or 7,820 lane miles, are in poor condition.
Also needing work: 12,264 miles need low-cost maintenance.
Pothole repairs last 5 years: 584,262 at a cost of $29.9 million.
Since 2006: $3.9 billion in pavement projects on almost 18,000 miles.
Years ahead: If funding is not increased, amount of distressed roads would increase from 16 percent today to 34 percent in 9 years.
Gas tax: A $344 million decline since 2006.
Age: Some state highways are 60 years old.
Traffic: 35 million vehicles a year.