The Richmond Register

Local News

December 28, 2006

Highway system needs updating, money

Transportation experts proudly describe the Interstate Highway System as the greatest public works project ever built in the United States.

But in some respects, they admit, it is also a study in poor planning.

Fifty years after its birth, the 46,876-mile network is imperiled by crumbling concrete, decaying steel, insufficient lanes and overstuffed traffic – and federal and state gas tax receipts can’t keep up with the cost of the needed improvements.

The cause of the roadway plight is easy enough to explain. Millions of more cars and far heavier freight-hauling trucks are pounding away at the aging system than engineers anticipated.

Consider these national statistical changes since the interstate system was opened to traffic:

Four-fold increase in vehicles to 237 million.

Three-fold increase in licensed drivers to 210 million.

Three-fold increase in vehicle miles of travel to 3 trillion per year.

Two-fold increase in truck loads to 40 tons for double-trailers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports more than one-fourth of the interstate highways, bridges and beltways in America are badly in need of immediate repair, upgrade or expansion. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the system a “D” rating.

Jam-packed interstates and traffic bottlenecks have become common in most urban areas, taking a grinding toll on both the roads and the drivers, and creating a national crisis of traffic congestion.

Engineers and demographers acknowledge they did not expect the interstate system to remake the country so rapidly into sprawling suburbs and exurbs occupied by big houses and big cars.

Highway historian Tom Lewis, author of a book on how the interstate system transformed everyday life in America, said too many transportation experts and motorists took the highway network for granted as the nation’s population shifted from rural to urban regions.

“The interstate highways are the backbone of this economy,” he said. “But we have created a sense in this country that they just happened. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

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