Experts Ponder the Future of America’s Interstate Highway System on 55th Anniversary of Its Creation

Today marks the 55th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s signing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Interstates and the Highway Trust Fund. The anniversary has many transportation experts weighing in on where the nation’s highway system stands today and what might lie in store for its future, including as it relates to the next federal surface transportation authorization bill. Here’s a sampling of opinion.

  • On the National Journal’s Expert Blog on Transportation this week, John Horsley of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials discussed the current state of affairs: “A third of the nation’s highways—interstates, freeways and major roads—need attention. Our primary user fee—the gas tax—is increasingly at risk as technological advances offer drivers an opportunity to move away from fossil fuels thus reducing revenue for investment. Meanwhile, demands on the system continue to increase—in the air, on the rails and on the highways.” Patrick Natale of the American Society of Civil Engineers offered this: “To move this country forward, we need to make the same kind of commitment President Eisenhower made for the interstate system,” he writes. “A surface transportation authorization must be founded on a new paradigm; instead of focusing on the movement of cars and trucks from place to place as we did in the Eisenhower Administration, it must be based on moving people, goods and services across the economy.”
  • U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood blogged this week about how Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez joined state and local officials in north Mississippi last Thursday to break ground on I-269, a new interstate that will help connect communities in the state to major shipping corridors. I-269 is part of the 1,600-mile long I-69 multi-state North-South corridor that is sometimes called the NAFTA Superhighway, because of its potential to improve the flow of commerce between Canada, the United States and Mexico.
  • Car and Driver magazine has a lengthy article in their July issue entitled “The State of the Union’s Roads: What’s happening to our playground? The American highway is broken. And broke.” The story’s author Zach Rosenberg writes: “Now massive sections of the interstates, including almost all of them near major cities, have reached the end of their useful life; the interstates were designed to last 20 or 30 years, but now some areas are pushing 50 years and handling far more traffic than their planners anticipated. But as we reach into our wallets, we run into our generation’s big dilemma: We’re nearly broke.” Rosenberg goes on to discuss the recent history of the Highway Trust Fund, the debate over a successor to SAFETEA-LU, the lack of a comprehensive national transportation strategy, and how vehicle miles travelled fees and increased tolling might factor into America’s transportation future. “We as a nation must make difficult, unpopular decisions about what to build, what to keep, and what to let turn to dust,” Rosenberg concludes.
  • As I wrote last week, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association recently hosted a panel discussion at which Ed Regan of transportation consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates laid out the case for giving states flexibility to toll existing interstates. Regan said during the next 50 years, $2.5 trillion will be needed to rebuild the crumbling Interstate Highway System and that a large share of the cost will fall to the states. The discussion also included reaction to Regan’s remarks from state transportation officials, which the AASHTO Journal Weekly Transportation Report highlighted in their report on the panel late last week. Land Line: The Business Magazine for Professional Truckers also examines the interstate tolling issue in an article this week. That piece points out that “Currently, the only way freeways could become toll roads is for a state or agency to apply under one of six Federal Highway Administration pilot programs. Even then, as Pennsylvania failed to do in the past few years, a state has to prove that tolls are the only way to make the upgrades.” Pennsylvania officials sought to toll Interstate 80 but they were rebuffed by FHWA in 2007, 2008 and 2010 because they failed to convince the agency that 100 percent of toll proceeds would remain with the roadway. Transportation Secretary LaHood has said he supports tolling for new highways and lane capacity but not for existing interstates.