America’s national transportation policy emphasizes accessibility, mobility, safety and economic growth. This policy is best exemplified by the creation of the interstate highway system, which significantly improved the quality of life in the U.S. This system of superhighways, stretching for thousands of miles, played a key role in the incredible economic growth in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.
The American people have long recognized the importance of building new roads and bridges to their quality of life, and Congress and state legislators for years voted for increased highway funding. Throughout the interstate construction era, the federal government also coordinated the development of new roads and bridges through the federal-aid highway program and paid for the bulk of new infrastructure with federal motor fuel user fees.
Since the completion of the interstate highway system in the 1990s and amid current concerns about the long-term viability of the federal Highway Trust Fund, the relevance of a national transportation policy and the federal highway program has been questioned. States are taking more active roles in funding their own road and bridge projects, employing public-private partnerships and tolling. Congress also has increased the number of direct earmarks for local projects in recent federal highway bill reauthorizations.
Americans want and deserve good roads and bridges, so it is vital that Congress refocus its attention on policy issues when it takes up the reauthorization of the federal highway bill in 2009. Congress needs to create a new national transportation policy to guide future transportation investment, one that will maintain the benefits of the interstates and also address the most vexing challenge to their effectiveness: urban traffic congestion.
A revitalized national transportation policy would first of all prioritize the building of additional highway capacity. While this has proven to be the most effective method to reduce congestion, new road mileage has increased by only 6% nationwide since 1970, even as vehicle travel has gone up by 167% during that time.
The interstates replaced an antiquated system of narrow local roads with multilane highways that accommodated burgeoning levels of traffic for years. Nowadays, many sections of urban interstates are often gridlocked for most of the day. We cannot allow the economic backbones of our country to seize up. While there have been many proposals and programs aimed at reducing congestion, and many local and state governments are actively addressing the problem, bottlenecks continue to impede free-flowing travel and hamper economic productivity.
Congress recognizes the need for new revenue sources to fund our pressing transportation infrastructure needs. In the current federal highway bill, Congress asked for two studies concerning future highway funding issues: the first study will focus on a mileage-based revenue system and the second will research alternatives to the highway trust fund.
An expansionist national transportation policy created the interstate highway system, one of the greatest public works projects in history. For 50 years, the federal-aid highway program has provided Americans with the best highway system in the world. If Americans are to continue to enjoy the benefits of the interstates and the interstate highway system is to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need a national transportation policy that is infused with that same spirit that built the interstates in the first place.