America’s vast interstate highway system. State roads. County roads. Farm-to-market roads. Rural roads. The streets we live on. The roads are the country’s lifeblood, bringing products and services to businesses and consumers, bringing people to work and into the communities and cities, getting them where they need to go: work, school and home again.
For the most part, these roads go unnoticed in our daily lives, serving as they have for decades. But therein lies the problem: America’s road systems are aging, and many are in stages of disrepair.
THE INTERSTATE SYSTEM
Plenty of folks get their kicks on Route 66, but it’s the interstate highway system that really moves America. The Federal Highway Administration counts 4.12 million miles of road in the United States, and though only about 48,000 miles of that are part of the interstate highway system, the interstates are the heartbeat of the nation’s transportation structure, accounting for one-quarter of all vehicle miles driven in the country.
The Interstate Highway System, first envisioned in the 1930s but championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was authorized on June 29, 1956, by the landmark Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. Eisenhower had been stationed in Germany in World War II and had experienced the convenience of the system of roads there called the Reichsautobahnen. As president, Eisenhower was convinced America needed such a system, and he set his plan in motion.
The act authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways, earmarking $26 billion to fund the project. It laid out the funding mechanism for the road system: The federal government would pay 90 percent, with states picking up the remainder.
The primary source of funding for the interstate system is the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), created in 1956. Today, revenue sources include an 18.3-cents-per-gallon federal excise tax on gasoline and gasohol, a 24.3-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel, equivalent taxes on other motor fuels such as compressed natural gas, and three taxes levied on heavy trucks and truck tires. Individual state taxes are also levied, funding the state’s portion of interstate maintenance and repair. Government figures indicate revenues of approximately $38 billion to $42 billion per year on the federal level, with expectations by the Congressional Budget Office that little will change.
States pay for their portion of the costs with varying taxes and user fees. Each state levies taxes, whether excise or flat, on gasoline and diesel fuel, from a low of 26.4 cents per gallon in Alaska to 69 cents in California. Other revenue sources include vehicle registration fees, driver license fees, sales taxes on motor vehicles, heavy truck use taxes, traffic violation fines, and similar taxes and fees.
Despite the mandated funding mechanisms, the Highway Trust Fund is struggling for viability. Since 2008, revenues to the HTF have not been able to support the level of investment authorized by Congress. Before the FAST Act, the annual gap was nearly $15 billion. And though spending has grown since 1993, the federal government has not increased the gas tax. To breathe life into the HTF, on Dec. 3, 2015, President Obama signed the five-year, $305 billion Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, reauthorizing the federal highway and public transportation programs for fiscal years 2016-2020.
“For the last decade, the construction industry has been plagued with significant uncertainty due to inaction on a long-term infrastructure plan,” said Diane Benck of West Side Tractor. “In particular, the Highway Trust Fund’s continuous flirtation with insolvency prevents states from planning projects, which, in turn, means contractors aren’t investing in new equipment, hindering economic growth for equipment dealers.”
In addition to the interstate system, many of the country’s highways, thoroughfares and bridges are reaching the end of their viability now. The Federal Highway Administration keeps an eye on the condition of 1,006,257 miles of major highways eligible for federal aid. In 2013, the latest data available, the administration deemed 161,971 miles, or 16.1 percent, in “poor or mediocre condition,” needing, at best, repaving, or even more serious repairs.
While that sounds dire on the surface, it’s good economic news for AED members.
“As long as we have consistent federal highway bill funding, you have a good economy,” said Al Cervero with Associated Equipment Manufacturers. “Look at almost any economic indicator except the soybean farmers – everybody is doing pretty well, and that’s consistent within construction equipment manufacturers.”
AED is hard at work advocating for federal funding solutions to the growing road crisis and encouraging members to engage on the issue with their federal representatives.
“Infrastructure investment is a win-win for everyone. It creates well-paying jobs and facilitates economic expansion,” Benck said. “And unlike many government programs, infrastructure funding provides a return on investment in increased tax revenue and greater productivity. There’s no better way to put the nation on a course for sustained economic growth than passing a fully funded long-term infrastructure bill.”
SOURCES: Associated Equipment Manufacturers; American Road & Transportation Builders Association; the National Archives; U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration; Wikipedia; Gaspricewatch.com; History.com
TOP TEN INTERSTATE FACTS
1. IT TOOK 17 YEARS TO CREATE AND FUND THE IDEA OF THE INTERSTATE.
Two members of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads presented a report to Congress in 1939 that detailed the need for a non-tolled road system in the U.S. The Federal Highway Act of 1944 allowed for development of a 40,000-mile National System of Interstate Highways, but it didn’t provide any method of funding, so it went nowhere. It wasn’t until the act of 1956 that funding was finally allocated to its construction.
2. PEOPLE FIRST LOVED, THEN HATED IT.
When the Interstate Highway Act was passed, most Americans thought it was a good idea. But when construction started and people, especially in urban areas, were displaced and communities cut in half, some started to revolt. In the 1960s, activists stopped construction on highways in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, which resulted in several urban interstates becoming roads to nowhere.
3. EVERY STATE OWNS ITS PORTION (INCLUDING THE POTHOLES) …
This means the state is responsible for enforcing traffic laws and maintaining the section of highway in its borders. Currently, the “largest pothole in the country” award has been claimed by the section of I-75 outside Detroit.
4. … EXCEPT FOR ONE (FORMER) BRIDGE.
The Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge (I-95/495) that crossed the Potomac River into Washington, D.C., used to be the only part of the interstate system owned by the Federal Highway Administration. But issues over it being too small led to the creation of a new, bigger, taller bridge. As for the old one? It was destroyed, in part by people who won a contest for having “the toughest daily drive.”
5. THE STATES SET THE SPEED LIMITS.
However, in the early 1970s, all 50 states set their speed limits to 55 mph. A clause in the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act signed into law by Richard Nixon dictated that if a state did not set its highway speed limit to 55 mph, that state would lose its federal highway funding.
6. THE SIGNS ARE TRADEMARKED.
The red, white and blue shields used to designate interstate numbers are trademarked by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The original design for the shield was drawn by senior traffic engineer Richard Oliver of Texas and selected out of 100 entries in a national design competition in 1957.
7. INTERSTATES AND HIGHWAYS WITH THE SAME NUMBER CANNOT RUN
THROUGH THE SAME STATE.
The numbering system used for interstates is intended to be the mirror opposite of the U.S. highway system, so drivers won’t be confused about whether to take Highway 70 or Interstate 70. For example, I-10 runs through southern states east-west (as all major even-numbered interstates do; odd-numbered interstates run north-south), while Highway 10 runs through northern states. Because I-50 would run through the same states as Route 50, the number will never be used.
8. I-99 DOESN’T FOLLOW THIS SYSTEM, BUT THAT’S NOT THE FEDERAL
HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION’S FAULT.
According to the Federal Highway Administration’s numbering system, Pennsylvania’s former US 220 should have been named something like I-876 or I-280. But Representative Bob Shuster wanted a catchier moniker for it. According to The New York Times, as a child he was fond of the No. 99 streetcar, which he used as his inspiration for the road’s tag.
9. THE INTERSTATE IS PART OF THE U.S.’s ATOMIC ATTACK PLAN.
A major concern during Eisenhower’s presidency was what the country would do in the event of a nuclear attack. One of the justifications for the building of the interstate system was its ability to evacuate citizens of major cities if necessary.
10. THERE ARE NO DESIGN RULES DICTATING THE SHAPE OF ROADS.
A major myth of the interstate system is that one out of every five miles is straight so an airplane can land. While this has happened, there are no rules or regulations that require such a design. Also, there are no requirements for curves to be designed into a highway to keep drivers awake. However, the Federal Highway Administration does admit that this is a perk of winding roads.