Seeking a better understanding of Pennsylvania's issues and proposed solutions? Sometimes, complicated jargon and concepts can get in the way. That's why we started Explainers, a series that tries to lay out key facts, clarify concepts and demystify jargon. Today's topic: roads.

In 2014, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded Pennsylvania's infrastructure. It gave the state's roads a D-. The ASCE considered a few factors when grading Pennsylvania's roads, including roughness, capacity, and safety.

How does the state measure the roughness of its roads?

Pennsylvania owns more than 41,000 miles of roads, more than most other states.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation measures the roughness of those roads on a two-year cycle.

State workers use a vehicle outfitted with sensors (lasers and accelerometers) to measure the bumps and dips on each mile of pavement. PennDOT then uses those measurements to rate each segment as "excellent," "good," "fair," or "poor."

How rough are Pennsylvania's roads?

In 2013, the state rated 44 percent of its roads in "fair" or "poor" condition. The rest were in "excellent" or "good" condition.

Philadelphia (75%), Delaware (73%) and Montgomery (68%) counties had the highest percentage of roads in "fair" or "poor" condition.

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Keep in mind that these are just the state-owned roads. There are about 79,000 miles of local roads in Pennsylvania, and many of them are not measured for roughness. They're maintained by local governments, which get a portion of state fuel taxes to help pay for repairs. 

Why are the state's roads so rough?

Pennsylvania can get pretty cold during the winter. When it rains, water gets into spaces in the pavement. In the winter, that water freezes and expands, cracking the roads. The chemicals used to keep pavements safe (not slippery) during snowstorms can also damage the roadways.

In addition, over the last few years, PennDOT hasn't had enough money to repair all of its roads and its bridges. The agency says it has chosen to focus on lowering the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state. As a result, some of the state's roads are bumpier than they could be.

Are roads in "fair" or "poor" condition unsafe to drive over?
There's some debate on this topic.

The nonprofit transportation research group TRIP says that rough roads can be a contributing factor in traffic accidents, especially when drivers leave their lane or swerve to avoid a pothole. But, a spokesperson notes, that's an anecdotal observation.

(Note: TRIP is sponsored by a number of businesses involved in highway and transit engineering and construction.)

Steve Karamihas, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, is an expert on road roughness. He says he hasn't studied the effect of road roughness on accident causation.

Karamihas says there were some studies done in the 1970s showing that large potholes (at least a foot long, and wider than a tire) can cause a driver to lose control of a vehicle, but it depends how fast the person is driving and how he/she approaches the pothole.

There have been some other studies on the impact of general road bumpiness on safety, but the results were inconclusive.

In an email, Karamihas says things like water coverage, speed, and pavement texture are much more likely to cause an accident than road roughness.

Of course as drivers know, rough roads can cause uncomfortable rides and wear and tear on car suspensions. Even an occasional lost hubcap.

Repairs will cost more as the roads deteriorate, says Ann Tomalavage, chair of the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Report Card. Tomalavage compares the crumbling roads to a leak you might have in your roof. "If you can get right up there and [patch it up with] a little bit more asphalt, that should at least temporarily fix the roof," Tomalavage says. "But if you wait too long, and say 'oh I can't afford it,' guess what? You're going to have to replace the whole roof at some point, and that's going to cost you a whole lot more."

What is the state doing to make its roads smoother?

In November 2013, Governor Tom Corbett signed Act 89, a law that funds transportation and infrastructure repairs around the state. The law raises funds by removing the cap on a fuel tax, which will increase the price of gasoline at the pump by an estimated $2.50 a week for the average driver by 2018. Act 89 also raises vehicle registration and driver's license fees, pegging them to inflation.

Under Act 89, the state will get an additional $200 million to invest in roads and bridges this year. That money is expected to allow PennDOT to repave at least 1,600 miles of roadway by the end of 2014. 

The amount of funding will increase annually. By 2018, the state will have an additional $1.5 billion a year to invest in roads and bridges.

The state put together a list of some of the roads it plans to repair under Act 89.

PennDOT estimates that it typically costs about $338,000 to repave each two-lane mile of roadway. 

Did this explainer answer all your questions about Pennsylvania's roads? If not, you can reach Marielle Segarra via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or through social media @MarielleSegarra. Have a topic on which you'd like us to do an Explainer? Let us know in the comment section below, or on Twitter @PaCrossroads.