Interstate II Overdue

Getting our highways up to speed for the 21st century

Fifty years ago this week, President Eisenhower changed the way we live, signing the bill that created the interstate highway system. The interstates gave Americans unprecedented mobility, more choices in where to live and work, significantly increased highway safety, and made possible today’s huge trucking industry (which now hauls 80-90 percent of all goods, by value – a massive portion of our economy).

Today we view the interstate system as completed. And insofar as the original 41,000 miles have all been built (the actual total today is nearly 47,000 miles), in a sense it’s true that the original plan has been fulfilled. Yet a highway system that was planned for a country of 170 million people, mostly east of the Mississippi, is not necessarily what we would design today for a country of 300 million with a burgeoning Sunbelt and massive international trade.

Consider how much America has changed in the past 50 years. In the early 1950s there were no container ships disgorging millions of intermodal containers onto trucks. and eBay entrepreneurs weren’t shipping orders to every nook in the country. There was no Federal Express, and UPS was a shadow of what it was to become. In 1956 there were only 54 million cars on the road, compared with over 136 million today.

The backbone of our transportation system – the interstates – was planned for a 1950s America. Since cars and trucks aren’t going away, we must now turn it into a system that meets the needs of 21st century America.

Compare the top 20 cities (by population) in 1950 with the top 20 in 2000, and you’ll see that nearly half have dropped off the list (places like Buffalo, Cleveland and St. Louis), to be replaced by huge, dynamic places like Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio and Memphis.

A quick glance at the map reveals some obvious missing links – there is no interstate from Phoenix to nearby Las Vegas – two of the nation’s fastest growing cities. And with globalization here to stay, there is grossly inadequate north-south trucking capacity from major border crossings with Mexico (places like Laredo and McAllen, Texas).

Buoyed by the advent of real-time inventories and Internet commerce, truck traffic grew by over 45 percent in the last decade and is projected to grow another 39 percent in the next 10 years. Trucks need their own lanes. There are over 5,000 deaths a year in car-truck collisions. And most trucking companies would gladly pay tolls to drive in truck-only lanes that allowed them to carry more goods – by using larger rigs than are currently allowed in most of the country – and kept them separated from cars. Los Angeles, home to both the nation’s worst traffic and busiest shipping ports, has plans for truck-only lanes to reduce congestion and keep goods, and the economy, moving.

As it stands, the plague of urban traffic congestion already costs drivers $63 billion a year in wasted time and fuel. Our urban interstates and other freeways worked pretty well until about 20 years ago, when we “completed” building the system. Between 1993 and 2002, vehicle miles traveled on the already congested urban interstates grew 29 percent. But we added only 8.5 percent more lane-miles to that system as the average hours of traffic delay per traveler soared from a modest 16 per year in 1982 to 47 – more than a full work week – today.

Most cash-strapped governments can’t afford the multi-billion projects we need to cope with these traffic jams. So a growing number of cities are adding networks of variably-priced toll lanes. By increasing the price of tolls during peak times, transportation officials can keep traffic flowing smoothly and moving at the speed limit – even during rush hour, as we’ve seen on several California projects over the past decade.

By all means, let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of our interstate highways. But we must not rest on our laurels. This 1950s system has made a huge difference to Americans’ mobility, comfort and safety. Our challenge now is to supplement it with a second-generation system.

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation and has advised the last four presidential administrations on transportation issues. An archive of his work is here and Reason’s transportation and tolls research and commentary is here.