Happy 60th Birthday, Interstate Highway System! You Look Awful
Happy birthday, America’s Interstate Highway System! We wish we could say you look good for 60 years old, but real talk: You do not. Sure, you’ve grown—when President Eisenhower authorized you in 1956, you were just a glimmer of asphalt. Look at you now! Fully 47,662 miles of roads, bridges, ramps, and curves, the meshwork that defined American post-war expansion and exceptionalism.
But, dude, you’re floundering. The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, you might have an annual $86 billion funding gap—and that’s just to keep your flabby highways and bridges functioning. Actually improving the darn things could cost up $150 billion per year.
Meanwhile, you’re mostly funded by a federal gas tax that hasn’t gotten an update—not even for inflation—since 1993. Additional pocket change comes in fits and starts. And the country is growing. More people will want more of you, even if it feels like time to take a nap. So here: Your three-step guide to getting your butt back in shape.
Get Better with Money
In 2011, transportation economists Matthew Kahn and David Levinson laid out a kind of radical idea—what if the country stopped focusing on building new highway stuff, and got down to fixing what it already has? In the long run, this would save some serious dough: For every $1 in gas tax revenue spent on your maintenance, the government would save between $4 and $10 on future repairs.
Regrettably, maintenance is not sexy stuff. It feels better to spend on a crazy expensive boutique gym package or a shiny new bridge, instead of pants that actually fit and a new layer of asphalt. Plus, government officials love a good ribbon-cutting, so shifting money priorities to focus on little touch-ups is politically thorny. But it’s the smart and realistic thing to do.
The good news is that most areas—and especially urban ones—don’t need new highways. Expanding you generally doesn’t help congestion. The country is better off giving you a new coat of proverbial (or literal) paint and helping you work your core, so your concrete bridge slabs stop slamming into windshields mid-drive.
Get Creative About Aging
With age comes limitations, but also chances to get a lot cooler. (For example.)
Maybe you’ve heard—your robot car overlords are coming. Just how autonomous vehicles will affect the highway system is an open question: Americans may choose to live even farther away from work, and use their commutes to SoulCycle or send emails instead of staring into your inky-black horizon. As cars get more efficient and move toward electric power, there might more of the them on your roads—but less gas tax paying for use.
Tech that allows cars to talk to your highway infrastructure and each other might help. But “technology can only take you so far,” says Susan Shaheen, a transportation researcher at UC Berkeley. That could mean that your roads become even more crowded while taking a bigger physical beating, with less money to fix you.
This is the path to sprawling, penurious dystopia—or a thrilling opportunity. Transportation advocates have long pushed for taxation based on vehicle miles traveled, which would charge travelers based on the distance they actually drive instead of how much gas they pump. Now a few are getting around to doing it, with pilots completed or slated for Oregon, California, and the Northeast’s I-95 corridor.
The best part is technology can make charging based on miles cheaper and easier than ever. “Each car now becomes a data probe,” says Seval Oz, the CEO of Silicon Valley traffic management company Continental Intelligent Transportation Systems. Vehicles connect through cellphone and radio to wider traffic networks, which can feed them information about the most efficient ways to get places. It can also send drivers a digital invoice at the end of the month.
Be Better with People
Since the beginning of the interstate highway system, says Florida Atlantic University transportation historian Mark Rose, communities have bickered over pots of federal money, insisting their roads need it more the ones, well, down the road. Unless something nutty happens by 2075, politics will be as here to stay as cockroaches. Government funds will always be subject to internecine backbiting.
But if people just start talking about and with you the right way, you could become the basis for something truly nutty: Washington compromise. Earl Blumenauer, an Democratic congressman from Oregon who also happens to be a former Portland transportation commissioner, says he’s never seen Congress this agitated. Hashing out the future of transportation could be a balm. “Not that it’s not without controversy and difficulty, but it’s something people think government should do,” Blumenauer says. Moving you forward with more money spent on the right projects might even convince the an angry public that Congress is doing its job.
So happy birthday, Interstate Highway System, you sad, old bag. We need you. We love you. Get it together.