Idaho Transportation

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50-year-old system heavily used, stressed

Chuck McCutcheon
Newhouse News Service
Half a century after its creation, the nation's interstate highway system is at a crossroads.

The 46,800-mile network of roadways, bridges and tunnels – built under the far-reaching law President Eisenhower signed on June 29, 1956 – is succumbing to the stresses of heavy use faster than money is being spent to upgrade it, transportation experts and lawmakers say.

As they commemorate the law's 50th anniversary this month, officials are looking for fresh approaches to maintain the system in the 21st century. Some states already are trying new ideas, such as turning over portions to private companies that impose tolls to finance road improvements and turn a profit.

But the problem "will be very difficult to resolve," warned Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, in an April speech. "It will be up to policymakers to be as visionary as they were 50 years ago."

Experts note that over the next 15 years, China is planning to build its own highway system almost as long as the interstates to allow faster and cheaper shipment of goods, while U.S. industries already are starting to pay a financial price from congestion and other transportation problems.

"From an international competition standpoint, we are going to be faced with a huge problem if we don't make these investments," said Jack Basso, director of management and business development for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a potential 2008 presidential candidate, agreed that the country must look hard "at how we've been living off the investments of decades ago" and show leadership in upgrading them.

"When I think about previous generational leadership, I think about President Eisenhower creating that interstate highway system," Clinton said in an April speech.

As an Army officer in 1919, Eisenhower accompanied a military convoy across the country and saw the poor condition of dirt and gravel roads. Later, as commander of Allied forces in World War II, he admired Germany's Autobahn and reinforced his belief that the United States needed a similar system.

The result often is described as the greatest public works project in history.

As the backbone of the nation's transportation system, the interstates completely transformed the U.S. economy and culture – even as they spawned such worrisome side effects as traffic tie-ups and urban sprawl.

"Although it was a speedy operation in many parts ... the system does everything that the designers hoped it would do, and a great deal more," said Bruce Seely, social sciences professor at Michigan Technological University and author of a history of the interstates.

The original purpose of the interstates was to provide for efficient long-distance travel, support national defense and connect metropolitan and industrial areas. But they have become increasingly vital in moving freight traffic across states and shuttling people around urban areas.

One reason the system was so successful, Seely said, was that politicians placed their trust in planners -- something unlikely to happen today as members of Congress, competing to bring home pork, increasingly dictate where highway money is spent.

"You've removed engineers from the driver's seat on many aspects of highway policy," he said. "You've re-politicized road construction. They're not being listened to by Congress about optimal ways to allocate funding."

The 1956 law set up a Highway Trust Fund into which federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel were placed to pay for states' road-building and maintenance efforts.

But Bush administration officials have warned that while revenues into the trust fund will increase over the next few years, they will not keep pace with spending levels called for in the highway authorization law Congress passed last year. Unless Congress covers the shortfall, spending will have to be cut to match the trust fund's receipts.

Meanwhile, pressures on the system mount.

According to the Federal Highway Administration's most recent study of interstate road conditions, the annual overall investment for urban interstates is $7.5 billion. Experts say it will take just over $10 billion annually in those areas to keep congestion from worsening and maintain current paving conditions.

"The amount of wear and tear on these roads has gotten to the point where state departments of transportation are going to have to start thinking about major reconstruction projects, not just another layer of asphalt," said William Buechner, vice president for economics and research at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association in Washington. "That will be very expensive."

For example, in southeast Michigan, planners estimated two years ago that the region will need $70 billion in constant 2004 dollars for transportation improvements – including interstates – over the next 25 years, but is expecting to get only $40 billion.

"Every time we do this (estimate), the needs go up," said Carmine Palombo, director of transportation programs for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

The Bush administration has set up a national commission on highway funding. It held its first meeting in May and will submit a report to Congress in July 2007.

"Americans are demanding a better prioritization of transportation funding," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who chairs the commission.

Reducing traffic congestion and improving transportation comprehensively also has become a priority for many of the nation's governors.

One, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, earlier this year persuaded state lawmakers to privatize more than 150 miles of Interstate 80. The state entered into a $3.8 billion long-term lease with a pair of Spanish and Australian companies that will collect tolls and maintain the highway as they try to turn a profit.

The deal has drawn interest from other states.

"We need to look and see what happens with the Indiana experiment," said New Jersey Department of Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri.

But Kolluri said construction alone is not the answer. He said more investment is needed in mass transit, new technologies to increase driving efficiency and other things that can alleviate congestion.

"We need to look at this as a multi-modal solution," he said. "We are not going to build our way out of the problem."

Published 6-9-06