The Interstate at 50: The job is not done

News ARTBA June 30, 2006
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Design and construction of the U.S. Interstate Highway System may be finished, but the job of building and improving America's transportation network to meet the needs of motorists and the business community in the 21st century is not nearly done, Gene McCormick, chairman of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) told the House Highways, Transit and Pipelines Subcommittee on June 27.

"There is a myth being propagated by some that there is no longer a role for the federal government on transportation issues now that the Interstates have been built," said McCormick, a senior vice president with Parsons Brinckerhoff. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Given its role in helping facilitate interstate commerce, the federal government has a critical role to play in formulating new transportation policies to help ensure America remains globally competitive."

The 46,000-mile Interstate System comprises just over 1% of the road miles in the U.S., but carries almost 25% of all traffic and more than 40% of all truck traffic. This has increasingly caused a greater strain on the System, he said.

"Over the past four decades, the Interstates have handled traffic volumes and vehicle weights that have dramatically exceeded the usage projections of those who developed and designed the plan in the 1940s and '50s,” McCormick said. “That beating—combined with the System's capacity shortcomings and under investment—has taken a great toll. There will be serious consequences for the nation if the capital investment and resource challenges that face the Interstate aren't fully understood and met."

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2002 an average annual investment of nearly $19 billion would be necessary just to maintain current physical and performance conditions on the Interstate System over the next 15 years. This figure does not take into account the rising cost of highway construction materials and labor, which have increased by over 20% in the last two years alone, according to McCormick.

By contrast, all levels of government invested only $15.1 billion on improvements to the Interstate Highways in 2003 and $14.7 billion in 2004, according to the Federal Highway Administration. This represents a gap between investment levels and system needs of between $4-5 billion annually, the association says.

The amount to maintain current physical conditions and levels of congestion will grow from $20 billion in 2004 to $29 billion by 2015—far more than is currently being invested.

An ARTBA economic analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data recently found the U.S. population is projected to grow by 50% over the next 50 years, from 298 million to 440 million people. Traffic will grow more than 200% over the same period.

"As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System on June 29, it provides an excellent opportunity to launch a much-needed public discussion on how the challenges facing the Interstates and other components of the nation's transportation network should be addressed," McCormick said. "The future of the American economy and quality of life depend on it."

ARTBA regularly presents the views of the U.S. transportation construction before congressional committees. In the period leading up to the final passage of the 2005 highway and transit investment law, SAFETEA-LU, the association presented testimony to Congress 14 times on reauthorization-related issues, more than any other industry group.

ARTBA was founded in 1902 by a visionary Michigan public official named Horatio Earle to advocate for federal legislation that would create a "Capital Connecting Government Highway System." Earle said the road network would "connect every state capital with every other state capital, and every capital with the U.S. capital—Washington." He was first the first to propose such a system.

Earle's vision was achieved on June 29, 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law authorizing construction of the Interstates and creating the Highway Trust Fund to pay for it.

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