Why Houston Streets Are So Bad

I had a friend from Austin in town over the weekend. We were talking about her visit and she said, “I just can’t believe how bad the streets are here.” Of course, those of us who live in Houston have been suffering through Houston’s deteriorating streets for years.

But why? Why are Houston’s streets so terrible?

It turns out the answer is pretty simple. It is a lack of investment.

Houston has about 16,000 lane miles of streets and roads for which it is responsible for the maintenance. The useful life of a street can vary between 20 and 50 years depending on the type of soil and weather conditions. Houston’s expandable clay soils and heavy rainfall climate is particularly hard on pavements.

If you assume a useful life of 40 years, which frankly is optimistic for Houston’s conditions, that would mean that we need to be resurfacing about 400 lane miles per year. Anything less than that, and our street conditions will inevitably deteriorate.

The problem is that, according the City’s annual audits, the last time we rebuilt 400 lane miles was in 2004 and the number has been steadily declining ever since. For the last five years, the City has averaged 146.

Another indirect indicator is to look at the amount of asphalt the City purchases every year. In 2004, the earliest year for which we have data, the City purchased almost 19,000 tons of asphalt. That amount has also decreased steadily ever since. Last year, it hit an all-time low of just over 10,000 tons.

Of course, this collapse in street investment was supposed to be remedied by the Rebuild Houston program that imposed a new drainage fee in 2011. The money raised from that fee was supposed to be dedicated to street and drainage improvements.  City officials repeatedly promised that the “pay-as-you-go” system would result in a growing investment in street reconstruction over time.

In a 2016 Houston Chronicle article, the City’s Public Works Director conceded that the City has only been doing 25-30% of the repaving necessary, but confidently predicted “being able to double the amount of work we do in five to eight years.” But six years later, we are actually doing less.

So, it is hardly surprising that visitors are shocked at the condition of our streets.

In the early days of the 20th century, the then Progressive Movement introduced non-partisan local elections to combat partisan corruption and promote prioritizing local issues, like street maintenance, instead of local elections just being an extension of the national partisan tribalism.

But over the last few decades, that tradition has been undermined by both parties by injecting national issues into local elections. By doing so local officials can keep the focus on issues over which they have no control and distract the public’s attention away from the sorry job they’re doing in taking care of things for which they are actually responsible and the endemic corruption that now infects our local governments.

Note: This data is from the Operating Indicators by Function schedule found in the City's Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports. For the most recent report, see City of Houston CAFR 2022, p. 261.

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