Saturday, March 3, 2012

Eisenhower’s Folly

The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, more colloquially known as the Interstate Highway System, is as much an immutable presence in American life today as death and taxes. It’s hard to imagine that, as recently as 50 years ago, it largely didn’t exist. Instead, Americans went about their automobile travel via a system of regular streets and state routes. As often as not, they took a streetcar or bus to work, or walked if they lived close enough – which was often the case in those days. Longer trips included the choice of a robust railway system or the increasingly popular airlines. Now, any American wanting to drive more than a few miles has the option to hop the “freeway”. If I want to go to Trader Joe’s on Chagrin Boulevard from my home in South Euclid, I can enter I-271 from Cedar Road, and exit on Chagrin (although it doesn’t get me there substantially faster). If I want to go to Lowe’s in Willoughby, I can take I-271 from Wilson Mills Road, transfer to I-90 east, and exit on SOM Center Road – this eleven mile trip involving two highway branches is an indicator of how omnipresent the IHS is.

As stated above, America already had a system of state routes by the time the Automobile replaced the horse as the transportation mode of choice. They largely paralleled rail routes. But the idea for a more extensive, federally designed highway system was bandied about starting in the 1920s. The first plans were designed in the late-1930s, starting with a hand-drawn map President Franklin Roosevelt gave to a subordinate – it contained eight superhighway corridors. Like the development of television, highway expansion came to a halt in the realities of a war-driven economy. Things really got rolling in the 1950s, when the government – flush with cash from high taxation and postwar economic expansion – had the means to make it happen. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was sold as an efficient way to transport people and goods between population/distribution points. As indicated by the name, it was also deemed vital to national defense, since military equipment and personnel could be transported more quickly in the event of an invasion. Today, of course, the chance of a “Red Dawn” military invasion of the United States is very remote. A biological, chemical, or nuclear strike is a more realistic and frightening possibility. Indeed, a biological strike could conceivably be made easier via the IHS: a terrorist with the contaminant could hop from point to point via the IHS in a relatively short time. But the concept of Russian troops storming American beachheads and parachuting into the heartland seemed very plausible in the 1950s.

In addition to income tax revenue, the system was – and still is – paid for by bonds, tolls, and gasoline taxes. If you want to complain about the high price of gas (which is much lower in the US than Europe), the gas tax is part of that price. The IHS wasn’t all built at once, of course. Construction took decades, with some planned sections never begun or abandoned in progress.

Where do we stand, more than fifty years after the Interstate Highway System was voted into existence? You can certainly get from Cleveland to Miami quite a bit faster on the IHS than you could have on the old system. But the IHS does not, by and large, distribute goods more efficiently than its predecessor: the rail system. The IHS does facilitate the transporting of some goods, particularly food, greater distances – negatively impacting local farming. So, even greater efficiency isn’t always a positive.

Of course, there are differing definitions of “efficiency” – including shortest time or least use of resources. Ton for ton, rail is by far the most fuel efficient means of transporting goods. A more robust railway system would be more efficient for transporting groups of people on trips, and bullet trains would be faster. Trains are statistically safer than cars, and use far less fuel than planes.

A half century on, the negative effects of the IHS have become apparent:

The IHS left the old state route system decimated. Businesses and even whole towns along the old highways were abandoned, mostly notably along Route 66.

The increased commuting distance (today an average of 16 miles each way to and from work) led to an increase in fossil fuel consumption - despite more fuel efficient automobiles. It also resulted in a decrease in the use of mass transportation. Outside the Northeast, buses, subways, and commuter rails are seen only as a viable way to get from one urban destination to another, but from exurb to city – not so much. The increase in gasoline consumption led to higher prices – not just for gas, but for all petroleum derived products.

Building the IHS was just the beginning of the cost factor: maintaining it has been expensive. Much of the maintenance cost has been dropped in the states’ laps, conflicting with various states’ desires to lower their tax rates to attract business. This has affected recovering rust-belt states like Ohio in particular. The full replacement of Cleveland’s InnerBelt Bridge may be delayed until 2023 due to cost concerns. 2007’s I-35W Bridge collapse in Minnesota had been preceded by warnings about its “structurally deficient” condition dating all the way back to 1990. There are so many bridges throughout the nation in similar shape that one can scarcely drive to work without fearing the worst – unless one has blocked it from one’s mind altogether. Maintaining this system has made keeping the gas tax a necessity – exacerbating high prices.

In the 1960s, the expanding IHS along with social unrest generated the perfect storm to ensure White Flight from the inner cities to the suburbs. This left the populations of cities decimated, with local governments stretched to maintain basic services – such as police and fire departments – and even infrastructure. This led to a downward spiral which made urban areas even less desirable to live.

By the 1980s, a temporary drop in gas prices led to further expansion from urban centers, beyond the inner and middle ring suburbs to more distant, exurban areas. Exurban sprawl has resulted not only in excess consumption, but social disconnect. How many Americans live in their insular fake towns, cloistered in their McMansions, and don’t even know their neighbors by name? For many, it’s enough to see that their neighbors, like them, are Caucasians who work by day and vegetate in front of the TV by night. The vibrancy and diversity of old urban neighborhoods is lost on them.

The benefit of getting from here to there faster has been purchased at an enormous cost.

Thanks, Ike!

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