Chapter 2: U.S. Transportation System

Chapter 2: U.S. Transportation System

Car driving on overpass
Chester Ford

State of Good Repair

Ensuring that the United States proactively maintains its critical transportation infrastructure in a state of good repair is one of the U.S. Department of Transportation's goals in its Strategic Plan for FY2010FY2015. This section presents three topics related to the state of good repair:

  1. the extent and condition of the U.S. transportation system,
  2. vehicle characteristics and age, and
  3. transportation expenditure by government agency and the private sector.

Extent and Condition of Transportation Systems

This section, in two parts, demonstrates improvements in the state of good repair for the U.S. transportation system. The first part highlights the characteristics of the transportation system and service providers. The second part presents the condition of U.S. transportation infrastructure, which includes highways, bridges, transit, airports, and railroads.

Characteristics of the Transportation System and Service Providers

U.S. transportation capital stock1 steadily increased from 2004 to 2009 and reached more than $6 trillion in 2009. The average annual growth rate for transportation capital stock was 7.5 percent from 2004 to 2007. However, the rate of growth decreased to 3 percent from 2007 to 2008 and further decreased to a negative 0.6 percent from 2008 to 2009 (Table 2-1: Transportation Capital Stock by Mode). Public highways and streets as well as consumer motor vehicles are the two largest capital stock items and were worth more than 62 percent of the total value of U.S. transportation capital stock in 2009.

The greatest percentage increase in mileage for any mode from 2004 to 2009 was in light transit rail track, by 24 percent, followed by commuter rail, which increased by 10 percent. The mileage for other modes such as highways, heavy transit rail, and pipeline for hazardous liquid and gas increased on average by 2 percent. However, the mileage of Class I rail track decreased by 4 percent, from 98,000 miles in 2004 to 94,000 miles in 2009 (Table 2-2: Transportation System Mileage within the United States).

For railways, the number of new and rebuilt locomotives and freight cars decreased by 40 and 64 percent, respectively, from 2008 to 2009. Because of decreased freight traffic as a result of the economic downturn, about one-fifth of the locomotive fleet and one-third of the railcar fleet were in storage in 2009, reducing the need for new and rebuilt locomotives and freight cars.2 However, Class I railroads replaced more than 700,000 tons of rail and 15 million crossties in 2008 (Table 2-3: New and Rebuilt Locomotives and Freight Cars and Table 2-4: Rail and Crossties Replaced or Added by U.S. Class I Railroads).

Coinciding with the economic downturn, the number of airlines, marine vessel service providers, and pipeline operators decreased from 2007 to 2009, although the number of interstate motor carriers increased slightly and railroad companies remained the same. The economic downturn seemed to have affected both airlines and marine vessel operators more than service providers in other modes. The number of air carriers decreased by more than 13 percent to 95 carriers from 2007 to 2008, and marine vessel operators declined by 8 percent to 652 operators in 2008 (Table 2-5: Number of Air Carriers, Railroads, Interstate Motor Carriers, Marine Vessel Operators and Pipeline Operators).

Conditions of Transportation Infrastructure

The following section presents key statistics on the physical condition of the U.S. Transportation System:

Highways and Bridges

From 2004 to 2008, the share of urban and rural roads with poor and mediocre ratings decreased by 3 and 5 percent per year on average, respectively. In 2008, 79, 94, and 90 percent of urban interstates, freeways, and rural interstates, respectively, were ranked better than the poor or mediocre rating. Although some moderate improvements were made for collector roads, 17 percent of rural collector roads and 35 percent of urban collector roads were still in poor or mediocre condition in 2008 (Table 2-7: Rural and Urban Roads in Poor or Mediocre Condition by Functional Class).

In 2009, there were nearly 71,200 bridges with a structurally deficient rating in the United States, an 8 percent decrease in deficient bridges compared to 2004. In 2009, approximately 82 percent of the deficient bridges were located in rural areas (Table 2-8: Condition of U.S. Highway Bridges).


From 2000 to 2006 (the latest year for which data are available), communication systems, traction power systems, elevated structures, and rail maintenance facilities used by transit have improved, and the percentage of facilities with poor or marginal (i.e., substandard) ratings declined.3 The largest improvement occurred in communication systems, which had improved from poor and substandard ratings by more than 25 percentage points. However, other transit assets, such as stations, train control systems, revenue collection systems, underground tunnels, and bus maintenance facilities, had either no improvement or an increase in poor and substandard ratings.

From 2008 to 2009, the average ages of heavy rail and commuter rail passenger coaches declined slightly, 1.7 and 0.4 years, respectively. The average ages of vehicles for light rails remained the same level and for full-size transit buses increased 0.1 years (Table 2-11: Average Age of Urban Transit Vehicles).


For nearly 3,400 airports, which are covered in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems and include commercial service and general aviation airports, more than 97 percent of runways had good or fair ratings in 2010 (Table 2-9: U.S. Airport Runway Pavement Conditions).4


The number of rail-related accidents declined from nearly 6,500 in 2004 to 3,800 in 2009, which was a 40 percent reduction (Table 1-3: Transportation Accidents by Mode). In addition, property damage caused by railroad accidents declined by 35 percent from its peak of $339.8 million dollars in 2005 to $221.8 million dollars in 2009.5

Vehicle Age

Overall, the United States had nearly 256 million registered vehicles in 2008, of which 93 percent were passenger cars and other two-axle and four-tire vehicles.6 The use of recreational boats dipped 1.4 percent from 2007 to 2008, resulting in a decrease of 183,000 vessels and boats7, but recovered with 28,000 more recreational boats numbered in 2009 than in 2008. The number of transit vehicles increased by 3 percent over those same years (Table 2-6: Number of U.S. Aircraft, Vehicles, and Other Conveyances).

From 2004 to 2008, the median age of automobiles in operation increased by 0.5 years and reached 9.4 years. During the same period, the median age for trucks increased by 1 year and reached 7.5 years (Table 2-10: Median Age of Automobiles and Trucks in Operation in the United States).

A similar pattern can be observed among buses used by transit agencies. From 2004 to 2009, the average age for full-size transit buses rose by 0.6 years to an average of 7.8 years. Ferryboats were replaced much faster than other transit vehicles, and from 2004 to 2009 the average age for ferryboats decreased by 6.3 years, making the average age 19.3 years (Table 2-11: Average Age of Urban Transit Vehicles).

Although the average age of heavy-rail and commuter rail vehicles decreased 1.7 and 0.4 years, respectively, from 2008 to 2009, the average age of Amtrak's locomotives and passenger rail cars reached an all-time high.8 From 2004 to 2009, the average age of an Amtrak locomotive increased nearly 5 years and reached almost 21 years. Passenger rail cars on average were nearly 26 years old, which was 3 years older than the average age in 2004 (Table 2-12: Average Age of Amtrak Locomotive and Train Car Fleets). To support intercity train service and improve performance and reliability, Amtrak has purchased 70 new electric locomotives and 130 new passenger rail cars in 2010.9

In 2008, about 47 percent of U.S. flagged vessels were more than 20 years old. Among them, 55 percent (more than 10,000) of vessels were dry barge followed by towboats, which comprised 22 percent (or 4,200 vessels). In contrast, more than 12,300 vessels, or 30 percent of the total number of vessels, were less than 10 years old (Table 2-13: U.S. Flag Vessels by Type and Age).

The average age of commercial aircraft in the United States increased from 10.8 years in 2004 to 12.7 years in 2008. The average age of aircraft used by major airlines also rose from 11.1 years to 12.6 years between 2004 and 2008 (Table 2-14: Average Age of U.S. Commercial Aircraft).

Transportation Expenditures

In 2009, the value of transportation-related construction that was put in place and sponsored by Federal, State, and local governments reached $111 billion, a 46 percent increase from 2004.10 Among those transportation construction projects, 74 percent of spending was related to highway and street construction.

To stimulate the U.S. economy, the Federal Government increased spending on highway-related transportation by 32 percent in the first 9 months of 2010 over the same time period in 2009 (Table 2-15: Federal, State, and Local Expenditures on Highways and Streets). Much of the spending was through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Discretionary Grant Program created by the USDOT in response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.11

State and local government spending on nonroadway transportation construction, including air, transit, and water transportation facilities, increased by 13 percent in the first 9 months of 2010; up from the same period in 2009. However, spending on roadways decreased by 1 percent (Table 2-16: State and Local Expenditures on Nonroadway Transportation Construction and Table 2-17: State and Local Expenditures on Air Transportation Construction).

The private sector also makes investments in transportation facilities, such as airports and railroads. In 2009, 88 percent of the transportation investment made by the private sector was on railroads.12 From 2008 to 2009, private investment on air and railroad-related facilities decreased by 10 percent to less than $9 billion in 2009 from nearly $10 billion in 2008. It continued to decrease by 8 percent in the first 9 months of 2010 when compared with the same period in 2009 (Table 2-18: Private Expenditures on Transportation-Related Construction).

1 See glossary for a complete definition of capital stock, which is a commonly used economic measure of transportation system capacity

2 Association of American Railroads, Railroad Facts 2010 (Washington, DC: 2010), p. 6.

3 U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Transportation Statistics, table 1-28b, Condition of Urban Bus and Rail Transit Maintenance Facilities and table 1-28c, Condition of Rail Transit Infrastructure, available at as of October 2010.

4 The National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) identifies nearly 3,400 public-use airports that are significant to national air transportation and eligible to receive grants under the Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program. For additional information on NPIAS, please see "National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) 2011-2015," Federal Aviation Administration report to the United States Congress, available as of November 2010.

5 U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Transportation Statistics, table 2-39, available at as of November 2010.

6 Registered vehicle refers to vehicles that have met State safety and/or emissions guidelines and whose owners have paid appropriate fees to the State for such registration.

7 National Marine Manufacturers Association, 2009 Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract (Chicago, IL: 2010), available at as of Feb. 8, 2011.

8 Joseph H. Boardman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak, Statement before the House Appropriations Committee (Washington, DC: Mar. 23, 2010), available at as of Nov.16, 2010.

9 "Amtrak Awards $466 Million Contract for 70 New Electric Locomotives," Amtrak, News Release, Oct. 29, 2010, available at;filename=Amtrak_ATK-10-141a_Amtrak_Electric_Locos_Release.pdf as of November 2010. "Amtrak Buying 130 New Passenger Rail Cars," Amtrak, News Release, July 23, 2010, available at as of November 2010.

10 U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, Construction Spending, available at as of October 2010.

11 For additional information, please see the U.S. DOT Recovery Act website, available at as of November 2010.

12 U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, Private Construction, available at as of October 2010.