September 5, 2018

US Interstate Highway System: Why It Took 62 Years to Complete and How the Idea Arose in Germany

Posted By Noam Maital, CEO at Waycare

On June 29, 1956,  62 years ago,  US President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.  The bill authorized federal spending of $25 billion (in today’s dollars, ten times more) to build 41,000 miles of interstate highways.  It was at the time the biggest American public works project.  And it was supposed to take 10 years to complete.  In fact, it took 62 years.

On Sept. 24  a small strange gap in I-95 will at long last be filled – and the Interstate Highway System will be complete.

Why did it take so long?  How was it paid for? Why is the word “Defense” in the original bill?  And what can we learn from this piece of history, regarding modern traffic management?

General Eisenhower was a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel in the US Army in 1919.  He took part in the US Army’s first Transcontinental Motor Convoy from the White House, in Washington DC, all across America to San Francisco, on the Lincoln Highway, the first road across the country.    It took the convoy two full months to make the journey, across cracked bridges, and muddy roads.  Eisenhower, as President, later remembered that trip, and in his memoirs recalled his observations of the German autobahn network during World War II.  “Germany made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land”, he wrote.

The word Defense was in the 1956 bill because Gen. Eisenhower argued that if there was an armed invasion of the United States by a foreign power (i.e. Russia), the American Army would need good roads to transport troops and tanks across the country.  Notice that today, 62 years later, President Trump uses national defense as his motivation for imposing tariffs – theoretically, justified by World Trade Organization rules. In the US, and other countries, national security is a slogan few can oppose.

That 60-day journey across the US in 1919? Today, the record for New York to Los Angeles by car is 26 hours and 28 minutes.

According to Bloomberg, a key part of the Interstate system, I-95, is the oldest part of the system,  and the longest north-south Interstate, totaling 1,915 miles.  It contains more than a fifth of America’s road miles and serves 110 million people.  I-95 facilitates 40 percent of the US Gross Domestic Product.

The last tiny piece of I-95 took two decades to finish.  At the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, drivers leave I-95, take a detour and join it 8 miles later.  It took $425 million and two decades to close this gap, to be opened on Sept. 24.

Some 90% of the whole Interstate project was paid for by the Federal government, and 10% by the states.  The money came from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.    The United States federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel.

Gasoline today costs about $2.85 per gallon, so the tax is only 6% of the retail price of gasoline, far lower than in Europe, for example.  The federal gasoline tax was last raised in 1993.  It is not linked to inflation, which has slashed the real value of the tax by two-thirds since 1993.  For two decades,  elected US Federal governments have not had the courage to even keep gas taxes in line with inflation.  Meanwhile, state and local governments are strapped for funds as well.  This explains the disastrous disrepair of US bridges and roads.

According to Bloomberg, the I-95 Corridor Coalition estimates that the number of vehicles on I-95 will rise by 85 %  by 2035, just 17 years off.   The solution?  None yet exists.

Why did it take six decades to finish I-95?   Ultimately, it is local and state governments that have to authorize interstate projects.  New Jersey’s Mercer County delayed closing that final gap in I-95 for years.  If mostly “foreigners” from, say, Connecticut, zipping down I-95 to their winter homes in Miami,  use the Interstate, why should New Jersey spend scarce dollars on it?

This is one reason why the American Society of Engineers estimates projected infrastructure spending, 2016-2025,  will be $2 trillion short of what is needed.

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