Hawaii, a state that has struggled historically to maintain its crumbling roads, currently has the roughest and bumpiest share of interstate highways in the country, according to a new report released by the Washington, D.C.-based group TRIP.

The national research nonprofit found that 23% of the pavement along Hawaii’s interstates is in poor shape, beating out all other states by far. The runner-up, Delaware, had just 9% of its interstate highways in poor condition, per the TRIP report.

The local interstates are all on Oahu — they’re the H-1, H-2, H-3 and Moanalua freeways.

It’s not unusual for Hawaii to rank at or near the top of national reports that examine which states have the poorest road conditions.

Honolulu Freeway traffic Kapiolani Blvd offramp.
Morning traffic inches along the H-1 freeway. A new report found Hawaii has a greater share of pavement in poor condition along its interstate highways than any other state. It’s just the latest report to put Hawaii at the top or near the top of the list for having roads in poor condition. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

However, this latest analysis from TRIP on interstate highways comes as the Biden administration tries to hash out a deal with lawmakers on a massive new $2 trillion infrastructure package, complete with some $115 billion to overhaul the nation’s crumbling bridges and highways.

Hawaii’s transportation leaders say they’re watching developments in Washington, D.C., closely to see what comes of that effort — and how it might benefit the country’s lone island state.

“I will say, I don’t like to be at the top of the nation for pavement in poor condition on the ride-ability side,” said Ed Sniffen, deputy director for highways at the Hawaii Department of Transportation.

However, Sniffen added that the TRIP report doesn’t provide the full picture on Hawaii’s roads because it doesn’t take into account all the factors typically used to grade pavement condition.

The TRIP report, officials there confirmed, used just one criteria on pavement condition for its state rankings: the International Roughness Index, or IRI. That measures how bumpy a road is, and how it affects a ride’s speed, safety and comfort.

The Federal Highway Administration, meanwhile, looks at more than just a road’s IRI grade. It also requires that states report data on cracking, rutting and faulting across the roads they oversee.

Unlike IRI, those three factors can reveal how much “structural deterioration” exists in a road, according to the FHWA.

Sniffen said the division he leads could choose to do more shallow resurfacing across Hawaii’s highways — the simple “mill-and-fill” jobs that make the rides across them smoother. Instead, HDOT chooses to spend its road-repair dollars on more expensive jobs to fix the road down to its base, he said.

Those deeper repairs are more effective but they cover fewer miles of road, Sniffen said.

He added that Hawaii’s interstates actually get a far more favorable grade based on what the state reports to the feds, which require more criteria.

Under the federal standard poor ride-ability alone is not enough to label the pavement condition as poor. At least one other criteria — either the cracking, rutting or faulting — has to be in poor shape, too.

Under that friendlier formula, the state reported just 4.9% of its interstate roads to be in poor condition in 2020 versus the 23% that TRIP found.

TRIP used IRI alone because that was the only way it could compare and rank all 50 states, said Carolyn Kelly, the nonprofit group’s spokeswoman.

How rough a road is also affects costs to drivers — and separate reports in the past have shown that in Hawaii drivers shell out hundreds of dollars in added car maintenance and repairs each year on average due to poor road conditions.

Road Repairs Still Coming Up To Speed

It’s unclear how much federal funding Hawaii’s interstate roads would get under the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure package, should that effort succeed.

Michael Inacay, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, said Tuesday it’s too early to say what the deal might eventually mean for the state’s beleaguered roads.

Nonetheless, Hawaii’s top rank in the TRIP report shows the state still has a long way to go to improve its highway repairs — even though Gov. David Ige’s administration made road upkeep a top priority in its transportation policy years ago.

Deputy Director of the Department of Transportation Ed Sniffen speaks during H3 tunnels surge COVID-19 testing press conference with Governor Ige. September 1, 2020
HDOT Highways Division Deputy Director Ed Sniffen said the state is still catching up on its highway repair program following decades of neglect by that agency. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Sniffen said that his division is still catching up on repairs to a road network of more than 2,150 miles of individual lanes whose proper maintenance was ignored for decades.

“There’s still a lot of portions of our roads that are in disrepair,” he said Friday. “When roads were built, they were built with the funding that came in” without considering the need for additional funding for repairs.

Lately, HDOT has been focusing more on maintaining the roads it has rather than on building new ones.

Until 2016, HDOT used an Excel spreadsheet to manage the state’s road repairs instead of more advanced software. Furthermore, its Highways Division was not using any crack or slurry seal treatments to lengthen the life of the roads it manages on Oahu.

Similarly, the city departments on Oahu responsible for keeping streets in good condition neither treated the roads to extend their lives nor used updated pavement management software until recently.

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