Paved With Good Intentions: Interstate Highways

It is only fitting to start this series of articles with the interstate highway system.  In many ways there is no greater example of the old saying from which the title is derived.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, at least it certainly seems that way at times.

The interstate highway system has been a tremendous economic engine for most of its existence.  It is likely even President Dwight David Eisenhower did not fully understand the long-term economic impact of the system when he signed the Federal Aid Highway act of 1956.  His primary focus was to make it an essential part of national defense and sold it to the country in that fashion.

President Eisenhower was successful in selling the idea of the highway system as a defense initiative.  He was so successful in fact, that the popular name for the legislation was the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.  In the age of supersonic aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles and cargo aircraft seemingly large enough to a carry a small city the national defense aspect of the highway system may not be as critical as in the past, but it is still critical according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The benefits of the interstate highway system to the country are clear.  The United States has some of the best highways in the world.  People and cargo travel millions of miles a year on the interstate system.  Whether it is a family headed to grandma’s for the holidays or a truck load of the latest gadgets, they will likely travel the interstate at some point.  The interstate system has helped provide the American public with a level of personal freedom and financial freedom not known in most parts of the world.  What is not as clear are the problems created by the interstate system.

One of the saddest and yet most amusing results of the development of interstate highways is the demise of the railroad.  Railroad passenger traffic declined rapidly beginning in the 1950s.  Some sources attribute this to the increase in air travel, but any objective analysis must consider the impact of the interstate highway system a major contributing factor.

The almost complete annihilation of inter-city passenger rail travel is sad for at least two reasons.  First, it was comfortable and somewhat laid back form of travel.  Anyone who has traveled on an Amtrak train may find that hard to believe, but it is true.  Also, it allowed an interaction among travelers that one can only find on a cruise ship in modern America.

The fall of rail passenger travel is amusing because of the green agenda that is dominating politics today.  Government sources place the cost of the interstate highway system at $128 billion in 1991 when the final cost estimate was issued for the system.  In a time when the federal deficit is a trillion dollars or more a year, $128 billion does not seem like much.  However, in 1991, $128 billion is roughly equivalent to $500 billion or half a trillion dollars.

The United States of America spent the equivalent of half a trillion dollars to develop the highway system that killed passenger trains, and now Washington and others want to spend at least that much to build passenger trains.  Excuse me, high-speed passenger trains.  That would only make sense in Washington, D.C.

The highway system did much more than kill off the passenger train industry.  It also led to the elimination of hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns.  The reasons this happened are complex, but the simplest explanation is that roads were initially developed to connect towns and cities.  Interstate highways were built for strategic and transportation reasons.  They did not follow the same path as the older highway system, and many towns were bypassed, resulting in a slow and painful demise in many cases.

The interstate system also led to the development of the modern automobile. In the 1950s, a trip by car was an undertaking that was not for the ill prepared or faint of heart.  Cars today easily, if not legally,  cruise at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour for hundreds of miles before stopping for gas.

Cruising speeds for cars in the 50s and even the 60s were much lower.  Additionally, reliability was not a factor in automobile manufacturing.  Anyone traveling more than walking distance from home, made certain they had a tool kit, extra water for the radiator, a real spare tire and, in some cases, spare parts.  Luckily, gas was cheap, which was a good thing given the mileage on those cars, every gas station had a mechanic and you could safely hitchhike if you broker down between towns.

To be fair, the cars were adequate for their time.  Before interstate highways, the highway system consisted of two lane roads, often with no shoulders.  The idea of needing a car that could travel from Fort Worth to El Paso without stopping for anything but fuel and a potty break might as well have been science fiction.  The interstate system changed that, and high performance, long range vehicles became the norm.

As with trains, the current turn of events concerning cars is amusing and sad.  The United States government spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing and maintaining roadways that would carry high-speed traffic with relative safety.   The automobile industry, domestic and foreign, spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing cars that could take advantage of those roadways.

Washington is now forcing the development of cars that can travel less than 100 miles before needing to spend hours recharging.  Not only are the so-called “green” cars short on range, they are short on carrying capacity.  It is possible to take a trip of several hundred miles in some hybrid cars, but taking friends and luggage along could be a problem.

The rationale for the green cars is understandable.  The highway system made driving attractive.  So attractive, it is now the preferred way to travel for most people.  The result is an ever-growing demand for petroleum-based products.

The interstate system led to other issues as well.  Urban-sprawl is a direct result of interstate highways and the system of roads that support the interstates.  Urban-sprawl led to the denuding of tens of thousands of square miles of land, leading to fewer plants able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Urban-sprawl led to drainage, flooding and other negative environmental impacts.

President Eisenhower was a great president.  He was a great warrior.  He was not a great prognosticator.  One has to wonder if he would have pushed for an interstate highway system as strongly as he did if he had known that he was starting the country on a path to a dependence on foreign oil, an industrial base that many feel is a major cause of climate change and the destruction of small town America.

© S. E. Jackson

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