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Expanding the Interstate System

By Jalexson

Copyright 1992

     A nation's economic health depends on the interaction of the economies of its various geographic regions. Transportation routes determine the level of interaction between different geographic areas and the nature of the economies of these areas. The greatest growth occurs along the most state-of-the-art transportation routes. During much of the 19th Century railroads determined which cities could grow and which could not. Today Interstate type highways determine where most non-agriculturally based growth occurs.

     The Interstate Highway System designed in the decade following World War II is no longer adequate to handle the nation's transportation needs. Many routes are overcrowded. The lack of direct Interstate connections between many major cities forces motorists to rely on more dangerous 2-lane highways or travel many extra fuel-consuming, pollution-producing miles on indirect Interstate routes. For example, the only 4-lane route between Houston and Kansas City requires a detour through Dallas which is over sixty miles west of Houston.

     The Interstate system has been encouraging economic development along its routes for the last 20 years. Expanding the system would increase the nation's potential for economic growth. The most significant population shift during the last 30 years has been from areas lacking Interstate highways to areas along Interstate routes. Increasing the number of freeways would open larger areas of the country to growth and reduce population pressure on major cities.

     Economic development follows major transportation routes. The Roman Empire's economic system was held together by its excellent road network. Early economic growth in the United States occurred along major rivers and canals.

     Construction of railroad lines in the northern states prior to the Civil War sparked economic growth that increased the potential military power of the area. The lack of a comparable rail network in the southern states kept the south in a subordinate economic role before and after the war.

     Construction of transcontinental railroads and spur routes in Kansas after the Civil War caused the population to balloon from 343,000 in 1870 to 1.4 million in 1890. In some cases the populations of entire villages moved from Europe to Kansas and other prairie states.

     Roads, including privately owned toll roads, aided travel through rural areas early in the nation's history. The development of the railroads during the 19th century with their higher speed reduced the need for a further development of a normal rural road network until the turn of the century. Bicyclists provided the first impetus for rural road improvements. In the decade before World War I, automobile owners added their support for a rural highway system.

     Associations of cities formed to mark the first national "highways" for inclusion in touring guides for adventuresome automobile owners who wanted some place else to drive their vehicles. These routes were eventually paved. The federal role in rural road funding began with programs to improve rural mail delivery. The federal government eventually required the uniform numbering of national highways.

     After World War II General Dwight Eisenhower and others began pushing for establishment of the current Interstate Highway System of national 4-lane freeways and turnpikes. The ability to move military vehicles along the German Autobahn impressed Eisenhower during the war and Congress voted to finance similar highways as a defense measure during his administration.

     Interstate Highways greatly improved highway safety and stimulated the interstate trucking industry. The ability to travel long distances without unnecessary stops improved fuel economy and reduced travel time. Trucks could deliver goods at a predetermined time for a lower cost.

     Highway transportation is particularly important for small companies that seldom ship more than a truckload of products to a given area. Railroad companies prefer to deal with companies that ship goods by boxcar loads or even train loads. Trucks provide greater flexibility than railroads. A truck can carry small amounts of goods directly to the doors of businesses in several different towns.

     Trucks have replaced trains as the desired mode of transportation for many businesses. Trucks offer more flexible shipping and often lower cost shipping. Many goods shipped by rail must be transported by truck to the final destination.

     Trains generally are more effective for transporting large orders of goods from warehouse to warehouse or for transporting bulk goods such as grain or coal. Intercity trucks have an advantage for smaller shipments because goods can be moved directly from supplier to individual customers without the cost of transferring goods from railroad cars to local delivery trucks. Supplier owned trucks can transport goods at any time, including sending special shipments in response to rush orders. Railroad companies schedule train movements at times that may not always be convenient for suppliers. Trains can transport truck trailers between major cities, but as part of a truck the trailers use highways to reach final destinations which may be in a smaller community that lacks the facility to load and unload trailers from trains.

     Trains can move large quantities of goods from terminal to terminal with lower labor costs per item then trucks. Trucks face lower costs for repair and maintenance of roadways. Shippers must ultimately pay various transportation company costs. Shippers generally pay the full cost of railroad maintenance because railroads rely almost totally upon freight shipments for revenue. Buses and individually owned passenger cars pay a portion of the user taxes that finance highway maintenance thus reducing such costs for those who ship goods by truck.

     State and local governments often levy general revenue taxes on privately owned railroad tracks. Trucks use government owned highways that have no tax liabilities. In many communities, taxes assessed on railroad property help finance maintenance of local streets.

     Reliance on trucks instead of trains for transportation allows more control over costs. A company can choose to operate its own trucks, but not its own trains. A company does not have to pay the administrative costs(including advertising) of another company hired to transport goods or worry about some other company raising the price of transporting goods. Relying on trucks means greater competition for a shipper's business because several companies and individual truck owner/operators may serve a given route. Many routes are served by only one railroad company.

     Politicians occasionally talk about running government like a business. However, few of them really look at a nation and its government like an economic enterprise.

     Individual businesses think of capital goods as items like office buildings or manufacturing equipment. For a nation, capital goods include items like transportation systems and waste disposal systems. Many facilities like public highways can only be provided by government.

     Businesses generate revenue through the sale of goods and services. Profit depends on receiving revenue that exceeds expenses.

     Government revenue depends on tax collections. Spending programs that generate increases in tax collections exceeding the cost of the program can be described as profitable. The Interstate Highway program has been one of the few federal programs that have probably generated a profit during the last 30 years(the space program is another).

     Fuel tax revenues have increased because Interstates facilitate intercity commerce. General tax revenue increases have included the following tax sources:

     construction workers pay and construction company profits;

     individual pay and company profits for those supplying construction workers with food, housing, and other goods and services;

     taxes on those servicing the increased traffic generated by the freeway, including construction of service facilities;

     taxes generated by new construction in communities along Interstate routes;

     improved profits and payroll increases, including higher pay and new employees, of companies using Interstates to improve productivity and sales;

     new jobs and businesses made possible by the ability to use Interstate highways for reliable transportation;

     and increased jobs and growth of existing non-highway related businesses in communities along Interstate routes.

     Interstates reduce the cost of shipping goods by highway. Vehicles using Interstates can travel at a constant speed from one city to another. Truck drivers can be more productive because they don't have to waste time waiting for traffic lights or slow traffic. A vehicle traveling at a constant speed uses less fuel, produces less pollution, and experiences less wear and tear on its engine, brakes, transmission, and tires.

     Accident rates along highway routes have declined substantially when the route has been upgraded from 2-lanes to Interstate standards. Accidents increase business costs by increasing insurance and other accident related costs and through the lost time for recovery, repairs, or replacement of employees and vehicles.

     Interstates provide a more reliable means of transportation, especially for distances of only 100 to 200 miles. A company can guarantee shipment of goods at a specific time on the same day. This capability can be particularly important for companies that supply replacement parts or that serve companies wishing to receive product components as needed rather than having to invest money in maintaining a large inventory.

     Unfortunately for many communities and businesses the Interstate system only serves part of the country. Some parallel Interstate routes are hundreds of miles apart. Even in heavily populated New York, I-81 and I-87 are over 100 miles apart.

     Communities in the gaps between Interstates are losing population because few companies will locate new facilities in areas far away from Interstates. This decline hurts businesses in larger cities that provide goods and services to the declining communities. The lack of opportunities in the gaps forces people to move to larger cities forcing local housing costs up and swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

     Filling in the gaps between existing Interstates would spur economic growth in smaller communities whose residents and businesses would then purchase goods and services from larger cities.

     Last year Congress approved funds for a feasibility study of a proposed extension of I-66 that would run through Kentucky and southern Missouri and end in San Luis Obispo, California. Other routes are needed.

     Some cities lack direct Interstate, or other freeway, connections. Traffic between St. Louis and Cincinnati must first go north to Indianapolis or use a 2-lane highway. Traffic between Houston and Kansas City must travel as far west as Dallas to find an Interstate route.

     Creating more direct routes would reduce fuel consumption and air pollution.

     Some Interstates are so congested that an otherwise minor accident can create a major pile-up. Establishing alternate routes for some traffic would reduce maintenance costs and injury causing accidents. Routes allowing some traffic to bypass major cities would be particularly helpful.

     Filling in the gaps, creating more direct routes, and reducing congestion would reduce the cost of transporting goods within the country and improve the ability of American companies to compete with foreign companies.

     Any business wishing to keep up with competitors must continually modernize its facilities. Hamburger stands in the fifties succeeded by having customers pick up their hamburgers at a walk-up window and take their food back to the car to eat. In the sixties, such a business had to add indoor seating to remain near the top in sales. By the late seventies, customers could pick up their orders, which might include other types of sandwiches, at a drive-up window.

     Today the leading hamburger restaurants offer breakfast menus and some have salad bars. Many of the fifties style hamburger stands still operate successfully, but they pose no real threat to the sales leaders.

     A nation that wants to continue to grow must continue to upgrade its facilities, particularly its transportation systems. automakers are spending billions to upgrade their facilities. The United States government should follow their example and spend billions to upgrade its highway transportation system.

     The federal government is spending billions to develop military systems that may not work properly and may not be needed for national defense. The federal government is spending billions on social programs that make poverty less painful, but do not eliminate the unemployment and underemployment that cause poverty. Why can't the federal government afford to spend billions on freeway construction that will create jobs directly, encourage economic growth in rural areas with dying economies, reduce fuel consumption and pollution, and allow safer travel for children born long after current military hardware has become obsolete.

     Some northeastern politicians like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan(D, New York) claim the Interstate system encouraged people to leave their states for other areas of the country. Such a claim ignores the fact that the type of transportation available does not affect whether people will move to an area that appears to offer greater economic opportunity. In recent years Haitians have been leaving their country in leaky boats because they no longer consider it a desirable place to live. People have left the northeastern states for the same reasons.

     Transportation affects the commerce of an area. Commercial activity in turn helps determine whether people consider an area an attractive place to live. The Roman road network attracted commerce and people to Rome. Interstate highways can carry traffic both ways. Interstates provide cities with the potential for growth.

     New York's economy has not suffered because the nation has too many Interstate type highways, but instead because New York state has too few. New York, and most other states, needs to create an intrastate freeway network to allow its smaller cities to support economic activity that would enhance the economies of the larger cities.

     The economies of large cities are not self supporting. Large cities thrive by providing services to the surrounding area. In general the larger the city the larger the area needed to support its economy. The economy of a city the size of New York City depends on the nation, if not the world, as a whole to support it.

Possible Routes

     We need at least two new east-west and four or more new north-south transcontinental Interstates as well as various shorter routes.

     The proposed I-66 route would allow cross country traffic to bypass most major cities. A route along U.S. 50 -- U.S. 54 from Jefferson City, Missouri, to El Dorado, Kansas -- would provide the most direct freeway route connecting the District of Columbia, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Wichita, and San Francisco.

     One north-south route would connect Jacksonville, Florida; Augusta, Georgia; and Toledo, Ohio. A second would run through central Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and St. Paul,

     The third would run along U.S. 41 from Chicago, Illinois, to Evansville, Indiana, and then use a series of state highways to Mobile, Alabama. One, or possibly two, routes would run from Mexico to Canada through western Texas.

     One or two routes might be added through the mountain states.

      Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner has indicated support for an Interstate route along U.S. 71 from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Kansas City. Other regional routes could include, but not be limited to:

St. Louis, Missouri, to St. Paul, Minnesota, through Dubuque, Iowa;

Houston, Texas, to Omaha, Nebraska, through Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Topeka, Kansas;

U.S. 81 from Salina, Kansas, to the intersection with I-29 in South Dakota;

Memphis, Tennessee, to Fayetteville, North Carolina; Augusta, Georgia, to Macon, Georgia, then along U.S. 80 to its intersection with I-20;

U.S. 36 from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Denver, Colorado;

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Omaha, Nebraska, through Canton, Ohio, and Peoria, Illinois;

Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Nashville, Tennessee;

along the Atlantic Coast from New Jersey through South Carolina using U.S. 13 and U.S. 17;

U.S. 82 from Montgomery, Alabama, to Las Cruces, New Mexico;

U.S. 395 from Pendleton, Oregon, to San Bernardino, California;

U.S. 97 from the Canadian border to Weed, California;

Chicago, Illinois to Idaho Falls, Idaho, through Riverton, Wyoming;

U.S. 2 west of I-75;

and U.S. 93 from the Canadian border to I-15 in Nevada.

     Last year's federal highway legislation was inadequate. President George Bush's proposed National Highway System could reduce the number of rural highways receiving federal aid and allow individual states too much discretion to determine which routes become freeways and which remain 2-lane highways. Governor Bill Clinton has proposed spending substantially more on highways, but has not indicated whether or not he wants to expand the Interstate system. If he attempts to increase spending faster than highway contractors can expand construction capacity, he may only succeed in increasing the construction costs. If the demand for construction services exceeds the supply of those services, the lack of competition for jobs will allow contractors to submit higher bids.

     Congress approaches highway legislation backwards. Congress places funds for minor pork-barrel projects of interest to individual cities in its bills, but ignores the need for multi-state route improvements. The practice encourages wasteful spending. Members of Congress lack the time to evaluate the proposals they support and instead rely on requests from local leaders who may suggest projects that sound good, but which should have a lower priority than other projects.

     Congress should leave decisions about intrastate or intracity projects to the states and cities involved so that an Act of Congress is not needed to change funding designated for inappropriate projects. Funding for local projects should be through some form of revenue sharing that distributes federal funds equally among the various states and cities. Congress might set construction standards for projects using federal funds.

     Highway engineers should not be assigned the task of determining where to place road improvements or evaluating the relative merits of different highway projects. Highway engineers generally only have specialized training in the narrow field of highway construction and maintenance. Decisions about where to place road improvements requires an understanding of fields like economics and sociology and should be handled by those with a background in economic geography or urban planning.

     Several years ago Pennsylvania highway officials proposed replacing two 2-lane highway routes east of Pittsburgh with a new freeway located between the two existing routes. The proposal would have destroyed the economies of the communities along the existing highways who would have lost some of the economic benefits the highways provided and would have destroyed the rural Amish countryside that the new freeway would have run through. Protests discouraged adoption of the proposal, but the situation does demonstrate the need to consider social needs when planning transportation projects.

     Local governments should have the discretion to use federal highway money for mass transit systems, but the money should be distributed evenly among cities and each city should have the discretion to use its money for roads, new mass transit systems, or operational subsidies of existing mass transit systems. Congress should not give special preference to some cities for construction of new mass transit systems. This practice essentially rewards cities that failed to construct such systems earlier and penalizes cities that financed construction of their own systems decades ago. Operational subsidies for existing systems would do more to encourage use of public transportation than construction of new systems that take a decade or more to complete and then only serve a portion of the community.

     Legislation authorizing specific projects should specify major highway, or mass transit, routes serving several states. Funding should reflect national and regional needs without making any effort to equalize funding among the states. The benefits a given state receives from a freeway depends on what other parts of the nation the freeway connects the state's cities with. Major cities along state borders may receive as many benefits from freeways through adjoining states as from freeways within the state.

     The federal government financed construction of western railroads after the Civil War to connect the east and west coasts rather than to benefit the intervening states. Federal financing of freeways should emphasize connecting distant parts of the country. Whether and how the intervening states benefit will depend on local factors.

     Those who complain about the cost of freeway construction ignore the fact that freeways provide permanent benefits for many companies across large sections of the country. The federal government has lost more revenue from granting tax breaks capable of providing only a temporary, if any, positive benefit to some companies. Much of the money from tax breaks enacted during the last ten years was squandered on construction of large urban office buildings that provided space greatly exceeding the demand for such space. Private business is spending billions to modernize production facilities. The federal government needs to spend billions to upgrade the nation's transportation facilities.




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