Happy Birthday, Elder Interstate

At 55, the Interstate Highway System is not really that old in years. But like Indiana Jones once said, “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.”

It’s also lots of hard living, with too little of the revitalizing attention anything needs to recuperate. And it may soon get worse.

President Eisenhower signed the law establishing the Interstate system on June 29, 1956. It spurred a gigantic building boom and connected cities like never before, shortening cargo transits and expanding family road trips. It caused a major overhaul of the trucking industry, put new pressure on rail and air service, but was a huge boon to commerce in general. It stands as one of the greatest public works projects in history, anywhere.

But we didn’t take enough care of this economic growth engine, and it shows. For a writer who grew up as Interstates spread out, who loved the improved safety and travel times they brought compared with two-lane highways, the steady infrastructure deterioration of recent years and explosion in congestion are disheartening. From a shining example of what’s possible, Interstates and many other parts of our transport system are too-often ramshackle versions of what might have been.

Now, instead of bold new steps to refurbish rutted roads and badly worn bridges, Congress seems on track to pass surface transportation legislation that will give states little or nothing more than now in their Highway Trust Fund allocations. Lawmakers may add more generous terms for road or rail loans to leverage more private funding, but unless there is some breakthrough on new revenue – probably from the president and top leaders in Congress – don’t expect much more.

In real terms, it could even be less, if lawmakers don’t fix a growing leak in the trust fund. Every time a high-mileage car takes the road, or an alternative-fuel vehicle or a commercial truck with efficiency-boosting aerodynamics, states and the feds get less per-vehicle take from fuel taxes than those levies were designed for. And the static, per-gallon fuel fees don’t begin to keep up with normal inflation in road work. So, more traffic means more wear and more repair cost, but less of a revenue bump to keep up. And the highway system gets old before its time.

John Horsley, executive director for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials, says “the national transportation system is the engine driving our national economy: delivering jobs, assuring just-in-time delivery of goods and a brighter economic future . . . (however) A third of the nation’s highways – interstates, freeways and major roads – need attention.”

AASHTO and other industry groups at least want Congress to pass some kind of surface legislation soon, to give certainty for a while in how much federal money states can count on. But unless something changes soon, and we add more funds as stimulus money fades, each birthday of the Interstate system will leave us more shocked by the ravages of time.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @jboydjoc


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