Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E., Ana Maria Lima, Morgan Whitcomb
This column is told in the first person of the late Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, as a viewpoint proposed by Sam Schwartz.
As the father of the Interstate Highway System, I was recently asked to look down on Earth from up here in Heaven and offer my opinion on the state of things. I am delighted to see that the system
I fathered more than 50 years ago is so beloved by the American public. Look at all those cars and trucks zipping along ribbons of roads, 45,000 miles of limited access highways crisscrossing the continental United States, the largest infrastructure program in the world! At the same time, I am shocked and dismayed that many of our roads and bridges are in such a deplorable state of disrepair. I am deeply concerned about how the country is not adequately funding the system, and I am worried that the country is not planning and modernizing for the future.
Some things have changed for sure. Tail fins are out and hybrids are in. I never could have imagined the lifeline that the highway system has become, handling about a quarter of all vehicle travel in the country and roughly half of all large commercial truck travel. And it’s about twice as safe to drive on the federal highways than other roads. Nor could I have foreseen the highway system’s impact on the American psyche. Look at all the songs it inspired, from “Highway to Hell,” to “Midnight Highway.” The nation has come a long way since I was president. Look who’s in the White House now! It’s too bad my old VP Nixon isn’t up here with me to look down on this.
The Interstate Highway System exceeded my expectations, yet at the same time, I am very disappointed. Highways and bridges have been neglected. Some chunks have been sold to private entities. Other parts slice through urban areas; I never really meant for my highways to destroy center cities. Sadly, the system simply isn’t paying for itself as intended. The congestion is troubling. Forty-one percent of the nation’s urban Interstate Highways and ten percent of the nation’s rural Interstates are considered congested, according to TRIP, a nonprofit national transportation research organization. All of these vehicles are consuming alarming amounts of fuel and spewing harmful pollutants into our environment. The nation’s dependency on oil puts all Americans at risk in the long run.
The situation calls for imagination and modernization. I would like to offer my humble advice on how to make the federal highway system world-class once again. We need to turn this gridlock mess into something better, because our national security and commerce depends on it.
First fix the roads. It is clear that the increase in congestion and neglected maintenance has taken its toll on the decades-old bridges and roads. Four percent of Interstate Highways are in poor condition and an additional 13 percent are in mediocre condition, according to TRIP. More than 2,000 bridges on the Interstate Highways are in need of an overhaul, according to Frank Moretti, TRIP’s director of research. Deficient roads and bridges cause traffic jams and cause accidents, or worse. In 2007, the I-35 bridge collapse took 13 lives and injured 145. Substandard roads cost time, money and diminish our quality of life. 1955, when I was championing the creation of the Interstate Highway System, the poor road conditions cost American drivers a total of roughly $39 billion a year in today’s dollars. It’s sad to discover that not much has changed. In fact, the situation is worse. Today, the deplorable roads cost drivers $67 billion each year, according to Road Work Ahead! I believed at the time, that the Interstate Highway System would work to relieve Americans of this financial burden and increase mobility, but it seems like maintaining the roads I championed hasn’t been a priority since I left office.
Hey, I know what it’s like to get stuck on the road. In 1919, when I was a lieutenant, I crossed the country from Washington to San Francisco in a military truck convoy. The trip was extremely slow, taking 62 days. We encountered dirt roads, narrow roads, sandy roads, and other practically impassable routes. In a report to Chief Motor Transport Corps in November of that year, I wrote: “In western Utah, on the Salt Lake Desert, the road becomes almost impassable to heavy vehicles. From Orr’s Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes.” We had 230 breakdowns and incidents. The trip got me thinking about “good, two-lane highways,” I later wrote in a memoir. Many years later, as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, I experienced firsthand Germany’s autobahn network of superhighways. Even after heavy bombing of German roads during World War II, military convoys managed to get through because of the design of the autobahn. These two experiences had a great influence on me, and with the backdrop of the Cold War, I urged Congress to enact the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, creating the Interstate System, which is today called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. I once said, “This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it.”
Here is some more advice: fix the funding. The country should not be going into debt to pay for the Interstate Highway System, and it should not be building new roads before it fixes what’s broken. As a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican president, I knew that a federal highway program should be able to pay for itself, and I also recognized the high costs of maintaining this road infrastructure. In a message to Congress in 1955, I said, “A sound Federal Highway program, I believe, can and should stand on its own feet, with highway users providing the total dollars necessary for improvement and new construction. Financing of interstate and Federal-aid systems should be based on the planned use of increasing revenues from present gas and diesel oil taxes, augmented in limited instances with tolls.” I supported the use of the Highway Trust Fund, not the General Fund, to maintain roads.
Today the Highway Trust Fund pays states 90% of the cost of building and maintaining the Interstate Highway System and is funded by primarily the Federal fuel tax and also by taxes on vehicle and tire sales, diesel etc. In 2008, the Highway Trust Fund had depleted and Congress dipped into the General Fund to pay states for highways. I do not support this. The government needs to raise the fuel tax immediately and peg it to inflation. The federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993 (currently at 18.4 cents/gallon). Also, adopt fix-it-first policies. Tie these policies to funding requirements for the states, and provide more oversight to close existing loopholes in “repair and maintenance” funds that are often used to expand roads. If you are feeling really progressive, create a tax based on VMT (vehicle miles traveled). This way, drivers are taxed regardless of how efficient their car is. Electric cars may reduce oil dependency but do nothing to relieve congestion. Until a VMT tax system is created, road tolling should be expanded wherever necessary.
My final advice is to modernize. When I took my cross-country road trip in 1919, the railroad reigned supreme. But at the time I was looking ahead. As a military man, I knew that what was good for commerce was good for the military, and good roads were associated with great empires. I also thought every family should own a car, and I thought this would liberate Americans and give them earning power and better quality of life. But that was at a time when fuel was more plentiful and affordable and trains didn’t go as fast as they do today. Today our dependence on oil will diminish our quality of life in the long run, both environmentally and economically, and, as many politicians have recently pointed out, it is a matter of national security. I always said that the highways couldn’t be widened forever and that congestion would choke our productivity and mobility. Now, our leaders need to look into their future, and the future is high-speed rail.
Consider this: one passenger train has the potential to remove 500-600 cars from the road and one freight train can eliminate up to 200 trucks. By decongesting the highway system, we can transport goods more easily by both rail and truck. A national rail network can also aid the military transport of freight and people, in the event of a national defense crisis or natural disaster. Also, becoming less dependent on oil will go a long way to lessen our dependence on foreign nations for our mobility and livelihood. One way to achieve a national rail network is to utilize the existing right-of-way used for the highway system. The land is a national asset that should not be squandered.
My fellow Americans, after more than a half of a century in the service of your country, the Interstate Highway System needs your help. I urge Congress to create a bipartisan panel to study the system and come up with innovative, responsible solutions for the funding, maintenance and modernization of this national asset. If we realize that we shouldn’t spend what we don’t have, we could get support for a much-needed gas tax increase in the near term. Look to the future. Whether it’s roads, rail or runways, remember that a world-class transportation system is the key to great commerce and national security.
A note of thanks to Dan McNichol, author of The Roads That Built America.He was an invaluable source in researching this column, and my inspiration for the connection to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1919 trek came after I heard Mr. McNichol speak.