TCS Daily

Highway to Heaven

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 21, 2006 12:00 AM

As you prepare to head out to join with family and friends for that Thanksgiving turkey, give thanks right now for one of the most magnificent engineering feats of all time.

The Interstate.

Or, as it is more formally known, The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

It's 50 years old this year. And it was in this very month, November, 1956, that the first eight-mile stretch of what would eventually be more than 42,000 miles of limited access highway lacing the states together was opened in Topeka, Kansas.

Give thanks because the Interstate is going to make your holiday trip, this week, and at Christmas, immeasurably faster and easier than it used to be. Only those who drove or rode as children in automobiles in the '30s, '40s and '50s can fully appreciate how much faster and how much easier.

Long distance auto trips back then meant stop and go driving through a maze of dangerous intersections with and without traffic lights; through railroad crossings, perilous curves and steep grades on which motorists too often found themselves crawling along behind heavy trucks. Most main routes led directly through cities and towns and there were few by-passes. For every charming little roadside restaurant now remembered through the haze of nostalgia, there were scores of dirty joints of decidedly uneven quality. If you were lucky you might find a good motel, but often you were left with a grim, run-down tourist cabin.

The system that would change all that was born on June 29, 1956, when an ailing President Eisenhower, without fanfare or photographers, signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 into law in his room at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C., where he was recovering from surgery for an inflamed intestine.

The signing received little notice in the newspapers (he put his signature to 26 other bills that day). Both press and public were more interested in whether Ike, who had suffered a heart attack the previous September, was too sick to serve as President or run for a second term that year.

President Eisenhower, looking gaunt and small inside his double breasted suit, left the hospital the next day, June 30th, and headed north to his Gettysburg, Pa., farm to recover and go on to win a second term in a landslide that November. Even he did not fully sense at the time that the highway bill was one of the greatest political triumphs of his career, setting in motion one of the most profound economic, cultural and social changes in the nation's history.

But there was never any doubt in Ike's mind that he had done the right thing. He had campaigned incessantly throughout his first term for a "grand" system of high speed highways linking the nation from sea to sea. And he got what he wanted.

That's why I often, when on cruise control somewhere west of Laramie, or Perth Amboy, say a little prayer of thanks for Ike, and also for George and Hale - three men, all of whom I had the privilege of meeting in my career as a journalist, who were instrumental in bringing the Interstate system into being:

Eisenhower, the Republican, dreamed the grand dream and then managed it into reality through the dense political web of a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Rep. George H. Fallon, a Baltimore Democrat, hated to drive and commuted almost daily by rail to his Capitol office. But he nonetheless believed firmly in the importance of an interstate highway system and largely drafted the 1956 bill as chairman of the highways subcommittee of the House Committee on Public Works.

Rep. Thomas Hale Boggs, (everybody called him Hale) another Democrat, from Louisiana, was the key member of the House Ways and Means Committee, who worked the Republican Administration's notion of a "Highway Trust Fund" into the 1956 highway bill, thus paving the way for the financing of the vast system through dedicated highway user taxes.

Well the "sacrosanct" Highway Trust Fund got busted into in the 1970s (thank you Dick Nixon) but that's a story for another time. You can read a detailed history of the Interstate here, and get some interesting Interstate trivia here, but if you haven't learned to love the Interstate, you should. Yes, it can get boring. Yes, it's ugly in some places...

But it's GREAT!

Despite "Work Zone Ahead" signs and those miles of orange cones, I love the Interstate. Despite that sharp turn on I-95 in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., and that bumper-to-bumper automotive torrent at the Washington, D.C., Beltway in Springfield, Va., I love it. Despite that bottleneck on I-78 at Jersey City, N.J., and the one at Breezewood, Pa., and Spartanburg, N.C., and that disconnect at the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey near Philadelphia, I love the Interstate.

When it comes to the Interstate I throw all my reservations about Big Government out the car window. I don't care about the history of graft and the lobbying by the "Road Gang" and the fights over "urban freeways" and the tales of pork barrels and political favoritism and the bifurcating of neighborhoods and the scandals of inferior concrete and faulty inspections and on and on. The Interstate got built and it works.

I'm sorry about the little towns that got bypassed and the quaint restaurants and funky roadside attractions that moldered away before they could be rediscovered by "shunpikers." I just love having all that concrete or asphalt rolling under me as I sip a hot Dunkin' Donuts coffee and the sun's coming up and I know the miles are going to melt away.

I love the fact that whether my trip's a couple hundred or a thousand miles away I can figure it in hours. I love the roaring trucks racking up hundreds of millions of ton-miles bringing my shoes from L.L. Bean, in Maine, or my car wax from Griot's Garage, in Iowa, or those '66 Cadillac front end parts from California.

I love those Florida state troopers hiding in their "slick top" Crown Vics and that RV swaying in the wind somewhere west of Columbus, and that distant town at the foot of the Rockies that takes a long time getting closer even at 85 miles an hour.

I love the "Wide Loads' with a half a house on board, or a big Caterpiller dozer or some giant piece of machinery. And they're always led by that bearded guy in the Woolrich shirt driving a battered station wagon with a rack of yellow lights bolted to the roof. I love those truck mud flaps with chrome silhouettes of nude women flashing in the sunlight up ahead, and the Subaru Outback with its rear covered in bumper stickers, and the French Canadian snow bird headed south in his black Cadillac.

I love the brochures at the rest stops and the big "you are here" maps on the walls and the people walking their dogs. I love the little red Geos bursting their lungs at 70 miles per hour. I love the gleaming stainless steel tanker trucks and the Wabash National box trailers with the "Worship at the church of your choice" signs on the back doors.

And, yes, I love the predictability of McDonalds and Bob Evans and Best Western and those huge truck stops with sweeping phalanxes of gas pumps. There are some snobs who grouse about the Interstate and brag about how they shunpike their way between point A and point B on the side roads so they can drink in the scenery and enjoy that cute little diner in Outofthewaysville.

Well, the reason they enjoy their trip is because all the truck traffic and a lot of the regular traffic is rolling on the Interstate, leaving those side roads less crowded and more serene. I've heard all their stories about how great it was to travel back in the old days before all those bland chain restaurants and motels "made everything the same."

These people get a little catch in their throats about some great stuffed pork chops they had somewhere outside Dayton back in the "old days" and they forget what it was like to follow a heavily loaded 18-wheeler up a two-lane highway in the not-so-Great Smokey Mountains, or to run afoul of some fat-assed tax collector in a police uniform in a little town on the way to Florida.

Suffice it to say, we are all a lot better off for the Interstate Highway act having been passed a half century ago. So whether you're traveling the longest Interstate route (I-90 from Seattle to Boston - 3,020.54 miles) or the shortest (I-97 from Annapolis to Baltimore - 17.62 miles)* give thanks for the Interstate and say a special thanks for Ike, George and Hale. Now I think I'll just slip behind the wheel and roll up some miles.

Ralph Bennett is a TCS Contributing Editor. He recently wrote about playing tennis with Milton Friedman.

* Highway junkies can tell you there are shorter routes that are technically part of the Interstate system. These are the "three digit" connector highways usually found in urban areas.



I'll take the interstate any old day except Sunday
I drive about 100k miles annually, and there are times when I wax nostalgic for the slower, scenic byways of the midwest. Occasionally, I divert my route onto the less traveled two lane highways to soak in the local flavors. The result for me is always the same. Two hours of rubber necking and I'm pulling over, checking my road atlas (no, I don't have GPS navigation yet), and looking for the quickest way to get on the interstate. Sight seeing is pleasant, but when I want to get from point A to point B, that boring interstate is my ticket to ride.

Its a good thing it was done in the 50's
$102 billion in construction costs alone for 42,000 miles = $2.43 million per mile.
Can you imagine what the cost to do this in todays dollars would be?

Wait!!! You means government did something right?
Shouldn't this essay have a been a complaint asking why government didn't get out of the way and let private free enterprise build these roads? Isn't that what natural law intended? Why isn't their indignation about the folly of the big nanny state. We do realize where autobahns started, don't we? Is this an endorsement of Nazism??

unintended consequences Lemuel
I'll trade you the idea that the government shouldn't have built the interstate highways and thus condemned us to the tyranny of the motor car for the idea that the government shouldn't have built the internet and subjected all of us to the tyranny of reading your posts.

Sorry - couldn't help myself.

can't imagine what it would cost today because it couldn't be done today
Building the interstates today would have to wait for several decades or centuries of legal wrangling over the environmental consequences. The $102 Billion probably wouldn't cover the legal costs of initiating discovery proceedings for all the lawsuits.

It's totally dangerous. A few more articles like this, and people will think government can help
And we know how wrong that is. We learn it more every day on TCS

Government should not have built the interstates...
And should look to privatise them now. The Government had very little to do with the building of the internet. BTW Al Gore did not invent the internet.

A true believer!!!
Tell Mr. Bennett: he'll be all ears.

Regarding the Intenet: you're wrong. all the protocols now in use were developed by reseerches working on DARPA contracts, most of them at universities. Al Gore never said he invented the Internet. He did say he took the initiative in pushing for and maintaining governmet funding for it. Maybe you think that was a bad idea.

Constitutional Remit
Yes, Le Mule, the govt did something right. More importantly, it did something within its constitutional remit, promoting (but not providing) the general welfare. The interstate highway system has stimulated interstate economic activity like nothing else. Fed govt can do things that no other org can do but it should stick to what it was chartered to do (like providing our common defense).

Progress!! But what about eminent domain??
Good to see you recognize that government can do something right. However note that doing this relied heavily on eminent domain - condemning private land for public purposes. are you sure you're on board for that?

broken clocks
Had it been done by the private sector it would have cost less and routes would be planned based on need, not the political power.

You mean if the gumment didn't
build the highways, we would all have been covering in our little corners?

Lemuel, the fact that something is a fait accompli and is serving a useful (or even a critical) purpose does not say anything about if it was right to have started it or whether the same end could not have been achieved by other means.

The fact that you spent the time you did writing this and other comments here does not in any way preclude the possibility that you could have spent the same time on some other chore.

And yes, it is an endorsement of statism and Nazism is one of many forms in which statism is manifested.

Ends DO NOT justify means.

That should be cowering

Take it up with Bennett
Explain why he's a credulous big-gov fool.

If only Ike had listened to Mark!!!
He'd have gone into the books as a real patriot instead of a a neo-Nazi roadbuilding commie.

Is that all you have to say?

The thing is, all you've said is 'something would turn up.'
You have a very large government program, extremely popular with most Americans, that went on for decades. Sure, if it hadn't been undertaken, something else would have happened in this period. Your unsupported idea is that that something else would have been better than the Interstate highway program, because it wouldn't have involved that evil, horrible thing gummint. The only evidence you present is the idea that we wouldn't all have been 'cowering' and idle during all this time.

You can make this non-argument about anything. So my question to you is, is that all you have to say?

You mean
b'coz you have been posting on this forum you could not have done something else?

No, that's not what I mean
But if you'd like to discuss how whatever happened instead of the Interstate Highway system would have been better than the result we got, and make a consistent argument, that'd be good.

In retrospect, the system caused the railways to atrophy. Oil supply wasn't really an issue at the time, but it is now. So maybe now we might want to think about where we want to go. But by your idea, why think at all? Why try to plan on a national level? Whatever happens will be absolute fine.

You mean
b'coz you have been posting on this forum you could not have done something else?

You mean if you have done that something else, there is no way it would have been better than posting on this forum? Is that an unsupported idea becuase it (the other thing you would have done) would not have involved that good great thing called this forum?

So,again, my question to you is, is that all you have to say about (that any means are OK if the ends are to your liking)?

No, I don't think in general that ends jjustify means
But tell me how many people were murdered to create the Interstate Highway System.

As for this:

> You mean if you have done that something else, there is no way it would have been better than posting on this forum? Is that an unsupported idea becuase it (the other thing you would have done) would not have involved that good great thing called this forum?

This is called making decisions. The only way to disucss it is in terms of alternatives. Yes, I'm fairly sure an intimate meeting with, say, Scarlett Johansen might be a more enjoyable use of my time than writing this post. Was that what you meant?

eminent domain
No need to be snarky, Lem. Of course I'm on board for eminent domain. I've tried to be fairly obvious about my fondness for the constitution as the word on the role of govt. The key is what is public purpose and not strecthing the meaning to selecting private winners (e.g. Kelo).

Ignore the fact that environmentalist hate the interstate system. Democrats...
used to talk about how it destroyed low income neighborhoods. Now it is a Democrat's pro Gov. argument, funny that. It killed passenger rail (BTW a far more efficient means of travel.) Also some Private highways where already built. When will gov. start to work on making it so cars can drive themselves on the interstates in order to reduce accidents and increase through put (Gov. is too conservative and will wait too long.) Why the over use in urban areas?

Her time.
"Yes, I'm fairly sure an intimate meeting with, say, Scarlett Johansen might be a more enjoyable use of my time than writing this post."

Good thing in our country, outside a few Mormon enclaves, a woman's permission is required for "commerce between the sexes", since one can be fairly certain that in terms of the efficient, effective and enjoyable expenditure of her time, as well as the presence of superior alternatives, Miss Johansen's time would not be wisely or willingly spent on an intimate meeting with you.

" I don't care about the history of graft and the lobbying by the "Road Gang" and the fights over "urban freeways" and the tales of pork barrels and political favoritism and the bifurcating of neighborhoods and the scandals of inferior concrete and faulty inspections and on and on. The Interstate got built and it works."

The author apparently thinks whatever current benefit the highway system provides far outweighs all the wasted and future waste of taxes that will be spent on the interstate.

What I find amazing is that my mother tells me she used to ride a train 5 miles from one small SD town to another to go swimming in the summer, in the early 50s.

Had that same amount of money went into the development of the rail system, as a driver, I would love to be able to take a train most places and enjoy the ride instead of fighting traffic or changing tires or finding a place to park or....

Had Big government not forced the issue, the market might have decided rail and airplanes would be the better way to invest. Los Angeles might actually have clean air and the automobile companies wouldn't be asking for a government bailout or for socialized medicine to pay for their screwups.

And we might not even have to import so much oil. Trains can run on electricity. The US has plenty of coal and nuclear capacity.

So even have grown up in the Great Plains, I'm not convinced the cost was worth what we have and what we did not get.

I didn't realize that Bennett or Eisenhower were Democrats
Bennett was the one who wrote the essay. Again, raise these issues with him. Eisenhower built the system. Last time I looked, he was a Republican.

However, if you want to talk about an efficient natioal high-speed rail system - (& I agree that'd be highly desireable) that was a product, in Europe of government initiative, and would like have to be here as well. If you want to talk environmental impact - that's a legitimate public/ government concern as well.

And I agree with you 100 percent
I'm totally against use of eminent domain to benefit private developers.

Your time
Thank you so much for sharing your valuable thoughts. We are not worthy.

Do you really care
to argue that NO Inter State freeways would have been built without Government involvement?

You say "In retrospect, the system caused the railways to atrophy".

Nice that you have acknowledged it. Do you think it is a good thing, particuarly now that the same Government is proping up the Passenger Railway System (AMTRAK) it helped to destroy?

Why do you think private businesses deciding (or not deciding) to invest in freeways is not planning?

Murder is not the only
(criminal) game in town Lemuel. There is also bait and switch (Remember Bush Senior's Read my lips), theft, grand larceny and graft and so on.

What do you have to say about the author's acknowledgement of the influence of all the above and then brushing it off as of no consequence.

Thank you for speaking for me
But it would be wasted on the Lemuels of the world.

marjon speaks for me.
I could not have put it any better

If you have an argument to make, make it
Instead, you're sitting there saying that the outcome was somehow not ideal, as if the ideal would have happened if only government had done nothing.

That's not an argument, that's a pious libertarian wish.

Take it up with Bennett and Eisenhower, not me.
I didn't write the essay. The Interstate system wasn't my idea.

Sorry we don't live in a perfect world
And the Interstate system wasn't my idea. But in fact, as a nation we may need to do things as a nation. Your idea seems to be we shlould just wait around for the perfect solution to turn up without government. I'm not sure this works in the real world.

You support and defend the big government it begets.
I don't.

First 4 lane divided highway was a turnpike in PA
" And Pennsylvania built the first modern four lane highway in the United States, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The first segment ran from west of Harrisburg to just east of Pittsburgh and opened for business in 1940."

"Pennsylvania's success with the toll highway concept influenced other states to follow suit. Maine became the first in 1945, when it authorized a 47-mile-long project paralleling US 1. The other states that followed included Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia."

This is the way Federalism is supposed to work. States take the lead and somehow toll roads were and are successful around the country today.

I support the idea that government can do useful things
You don't.

so what??
I mean, nobody's saying states shouldn't build roads.

>his is the way Federalism is supposed to work. States take the lead and somehow toll roads were and are successful around the country today.

sure. And so are federal roads, particularly in large, thinly settled places. What's your problem?

You believe the government should be the first choice,
I believe the government is the choice of last resort.

Federal government need not have gotten involved
No need for a department of transportation for Congress to funnel money into bad projects like the Big Dig in Boston.

An interstate sysytem of divided highways would have evolved without Eisenhower and we still might have a good passenger rail system. All with out the 'help' of the federal government.

Coulda mighta shoulda
And we still could have a good passenger rail system, but only government can do it and it will take money. If you want to see toll road disasters, by the way, take the drive from Mexico DF to Acapulco. It'll only cost you $100....

Government _is_ the last resort
You don't seem to get the history of these things. Government comes in because the market, or local government is doing something that a big majority think needs to be done. That's been the story right down the line. With some failures, which I'm happy to recognize, and many successes, which you relexively, unthinkingly deny on totally ideological grounds.

AMTRAK: Government can do it?
Not very well.

Govt can't do it, turns to private sector:
"But Europe had neither highway trust funds nor tax-exempt bonds. So as the need for limited-access motorway networks became obvious after World War II, first France and then Italy, Spain, and Portugal rediscovered the toll-funded, long-term concession model. All four countries developed their large, national motorway networks using this model. Many of the toll road companies started out as state owned and retained majority state control, but in the last decade, most of them have been privatized. Thus, Western Europe today has a thriving private toll roads industry that has started investing in Latin America, the former Eastern Europe, and the United Kingdom.

One of the newer adherents to this model is Australia. Toll road companies operating under long-term concession agreements have developed and now operate nearly all of the urban expressway capacity added since the early 1990s in the country's two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney. Another major city, Brisbane, now seems to be moving in the same direction. Australia's leading toll road firms also have gone global, acquiring ownership stakes in overseas toll roads and even developing toll road mutual funds aimed at long-term investors. "

"In southern California, for example, inspiration from the private sector led to the notion of having variably priced express lanes in the middle of the Riverside Freeway. It took a law (AB 680) inviting investor proposals to produce the idea for the 91 Express Lanes. "It is doubtful whether a public agency could have implemented such a radical, untried scheme, in addition to carrying out the intense marketing and customer relations needed to get it to work," says Carl B. Williams, former director of the Office of Public-Private Partnership at the California Department of Transportation. "It was a risky project, and public agencies do not tend to reward risk taking, at least not to the extent that the private sector can with stock options and bonuses for those who succeed and dismissal for those who fail.""

Interstate 60
Saw this movie on an overseas flight.

It is pretty good. Quirky, but good.

Other governments do it very well indeed
And if you ride Amtrak, you can see why it's not working. In Europe or Japan (and soon Korea) you have trains going city center to city center at 200 mph or even more. In the Northeast corridor you have the Acela crawling beteween DC & NY - a natural for rail - at highway speed or less.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no
Again, the experience with private tollways is Mexico has been bad. The experiments in Southern California have had mixed results.

But beyond this stuff: your view is that government is always wrong, that private is always superior. You begin and end with that belief, and dismiss any contrary evidence as prima facie wrong.

I don't have anything at all against private solutions to all kinds of problems. I greatly admire well run companies and successful entrepreneurs. I just also recognize - like most Americans - that govern,ent, including big government - can fill gaps the market can't fill, or fills in ways that victimize too many people.

If you check, I think you will find evil contractors operate the efficient railroads.
"As the Spanish government continues to rapidly implement plans to upgrade existing rail lines and build new high-speed rail lines around the country, more and more Spaniards flock to take advantage of the increased flexibility and mobility. Half of the $252 billion budget for the 2005–2020 Transportation Infrastructure Plan is dedicated to rail. According to government estimates (based on the economic value of added jobs, increased mobility, saved time, and decreased pollution and carbon dioxide emissions), rail in Spain contributed to the Spanish government more than three times the amount it received in subsidies.

“We’re extremely proud of where we are,” says Jiménez of ADIF. “We started with a rail system that was not very competitive, had deteriorated a great deal, was very old—and was even shutting down. Within a short period of time, all that changed. And we’ve also reached a very competitive technological level, with companies providing equipment, components, civil works, and construction that compete on the international market. All of this makes us very proud of the Spanish model.”

So if the US government would put up the operation of Amtrak to a private contractor like Lockheed or Halliburton, maybe the rail roads might be competetive.

Why would you expect anything to work in corrupt Mexico?
The government should be the LAST choice, not the first choice.

Corruption in MA on its toll roads and Big Dig project are legendary. Ya, gov't is good for patronage jobs and corruption.

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