THE FUTURE OF THE INTERSTATES
While the economic and social benefits of the first 40 years of the interstate highway system are
clear, the gargantuan load of automobiles, light trucks, buses, and commercial vehicles has taken a
toll on the interstates.
Condition of the Interstates: Despite the important role played by the interstates in the nation's
economy and quality of life, the system requires renewed investment. Many portions of the
interstate highway system are strained to capacity, increasing delays and air pollution and
dampening economic activity. This is not surprising. The interstate highways were built to
accommodate 20 years of traffic growth. By 1985, half of the system had reached its design life,
and, by 1995, 90 percent of the system was 20 years or older. The original interstate highway
system, authorized when the nation's population was less than 170 million, is not much more
extensive today when the nation's population approaches 270 million. Including non-interstate
super-highways, expressways and toll roads now total 55,000 miles, 30 percent more than the
interstate highway system as conceived in the late 1950s, but the nation's population has
increased by 70 percent over the same period.
From 1982 to 1992, urban traffic congestion increased by more than 15 percent.
NOTE: Urban Roadway Congestion-1982 to 1992.
The percentage of urban interstate lane miles operating at above 80 percent of capacity at
peak hour has nearly doubled since 1975.
NOTE: 1994 Highway Statistics.
And, rural interstate congestion, though minimal compared to that of urban areas, continues to
At the same time, the physical structure of the system is in need of attention.
Approximately 60 percent of interstate pavements are rated from fair to poor.
NOTE: Clifford M. Comeau, "Condition and Performance
of the Interstate System - After 40 Years," Public Roads (Washington, United States
Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Summer 1996).
Six percent of interstate bridges are structurally deficient.
Structural deficiency can result
in catastrophic bridge failure and loss of life (within the past 15 years, there have been two
well publicized bridge collapses claiming 13 lives.
NOTE: Calculated from 1995 Status of the Nation's Surface Transportation System: Conditions and Performance (Washington, DC: United
States Department of Transportation, 1995),
NOTE: Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Connecticut (1983)
and Schoharie Creek Bridge on I-95 in New York (1987).).
The Imperative for Interstate Investment: Expensive as they might appear, improvements are
necessary. According to reports prepared for the Federal Highway Administration, the pace of
super-highway lane construction in urban areas over one million would have to be increased
substantially to stop the growth of traffic congestion. Yet, the annual cost of such would be only
--- a fraction of the peak annual construction costs incurred during the 1960s and
1970s, and a 2.5 percent increase in the nation's annual surface transportation budget.
NOTE: Lane mile data from Texas Transportation
Institute, 1995. Per lane mile cost calculated from data in 1995 Status of the Nation's Surface
Transportation System: Conditions and Performance adjusted to reflect 1996 prices.
safety impacts alone would justify such expenditures. Each new ten mile segment of urban
interstate could be expected to save, on average, two lives and 250 injuries annually. Over a ten
year period, this urban interstate improvement rate could save 1,950 lives and avert 240,000
NOTE: 1994 surface transportation expenditures were
approximately $120 billion (1996$), $95 billion for highways and $25 billion for transit.
The economic impacts of improved safety would exceed the cost of the new roadway in
less than 15 years.
NOTE: Based upon improved lower fatality and injury rate
of the interstate highway system relative to the balance of the federal aid primary
system. Average urban interstate assumed to be six lanes. 10 year projection assumes
that 1,104 lane miles of urban interstates would be
built per year over the period.
Each new 10 mile segment of rural interstate could be expected to save one
life and 40 injuries per year.
NOTE: Conversion from lane miles to roadway
assumes an average of six traffic lanes. Lives and injuries avoided based upon comparison of rates
between interstates and the federal aid-primary system. Construction costs based on data in 1995 Status of the Nation's Surface
Transportation System: Conditions and Performance converted to 1996$.
The increase in traffic congestion takes an additional economic toll in terms of excess fuel
consumption and the costs of delay. In 1992, these urban "congestion costs" were $34 billion and
were increasing at an annual rate of approximately $2.1 billion.
--- nearly two thirds of the annual
cost of required capacity expansion ($3.0 billion, above). Urban super-highway (largely interstate)
congestion increases motor vehicle related pollution by consuming more than 14 billion excess
gallons of fuel annually --- 58 gallons of fuel per household. This is enough fuel to transport the
average household 1,250 miles by automobile (equal to trips from New York to Minneapolis,
Seattle to San Diego, Milwaukee to Orlando or Denver to New Orleans).
NOTE: In 1996 dollars.
Super-highway congestion costs estimated using relationship of freeway delay hours to total
system delay hours.
Calculated using data for 50 large urban areas in
Urban Roadway Congestion - 1982 to 1992.
A report on 1989 conditions indicated that free traffic flow could be achieved through super-highway
(largely interstate) expansions in even the most congested urban areas.
NOTE: 1989 Roadway Congestion Estimate and
Trends (College Station, Texas: Texas Transportation Institute, July 1992).
By far the highest cost --- $8 billion --- would be required in Los Angeles
considerably less than that urban area is spending to build urban rail systems that are
unlikely to significantly improve traffic flow.
NOTE: In 1996$, based upon costs calculated from
1995 Status of the Nation's Surface Transportation System: Conditions and Performance.
$1 billion would be required in Washington, D.C. Again, while this is a considerable
figure, it represents a relatively small investment compared to other non-highway
transportation investments that have failed to reduce the area's traffic congestion.
There has been considerable opposition to expansion of urban interstates, much of it based upon
the presumption that expanded interstate capacity is quickly consumed by new traffic. Yet, traffic
congestion has declined in two of the nation's fastest growing urban areas (between 1982 and
NOTE: Urban Roadway Congestion - 1982 to 1992.
In Phoenix, traffic congestion declined by six percent from 1982 to 1992, while population
increased by 40 percent (1980-1990).
In Houston, traffic congestion declined by four percent from 1982 to 1992, while
population increased by 20 percent (1980-1990).
A major component of the improved traffic conditions in these two urban areas has been a
substantial program to build and expand super-highways. By contrast, the average large urban
area experienced a 20 percent increase in traffic congestion, while population increased by
approximately 10 percent.
Nationally, improvement of interstate highways and other super-highways to support anticipated
rates of economic growth would require an annual increase in capital expenditures of
approximately $3.5 to $4.5 billion --- $24 billion from 1997 through 2002.
Recent analysis by
the Congressional Budget Office indicated that federal highway expenditures could be increased
by nearly $28 billion from 1997 through 2002 --- more than enough to pay for the required
investment, through use of existing and anticipated Highway Trust Fund resources.
NOTE: Calculated from data for the "Economic Efficiency"
scenario in 1995 Status of the Nation's Surface Transportation System: Conditions
even after 2002, highway user fees will continue to produce more revenue than is spent on
building, maintaining, and patrolling the nation's highways --- considerably more than would be
required to fund the investments required to preserve the positive economic contribution of the
interstate highway system to the national economy.
NOTE: Calculated from data in Statement of Robert A. Sunshine, Deputy Assistant Director for Budget Analysis, Congressional Budget Office, on
The Highway Trust Fund, before the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, United
States House of Representatives, May 16, 1996.
The economic imperative: The nation's continued economic growth depends, in part, on an
interstate highway system that grows along with the nation. Population growth will continue. All
demographic trends indicate overwhelmingly that people will continue to pursue the "American
Dream" of the house in the suburbs and a high degree of personal mobility. But the challenges to
U.S. economic growth are substantial. International competitors are becoming stronger, while
total compensation per U.S. employee is increasing at lower rates that before. If traffic congestion
is permitted to worsen, then American consumers will pay a heavy toll, in higher prices due to
higher shipping costs, jobs lost due to foreign competition, reduced employment opportunities,
and less leisure time.
America's Future Depends on the Interstates
It has been a momentous 40 years. Interstate highways have contributed to the economic growth
and quality of life in America. Indeed, the interstate highway system has been a major factor in
making the United States the homogeneous nation that it has become.
The interstate highway system, and other super-highways, will continue to make a positive
contribution to the nation's economy and quality of life. This requires that investments be made to
preserve and expand the mobility that has helped to make Americans the world's most prosperous
people, America the world's premier economic power, and provided an international model for
expanding freedom of mobility for virtually everyone. In important dimensions, the future of the
nation depends upon the interstate highway system.
The American Highway Users Alliance
The American Highway Users Alliance traces its roots to 1932, when it was chartered by General Motors President Alfred Sloan to "get the farmers out of the mud." The Highway Users (knows as the Highway Users Federation from 1970 to 1995) serves the long-term interests of business and industry in transportation. Many industries are dependent on highways to be successful, including automotive, travel and shipping. Almost 80 percent of all U.S. Expenditures for passenger and freight transportation --- $800 billion annually --- are highway related. Highway passengers spend over $350 billion per year on their travel --- about 12 percent of the nation's GDP. And freight movement over highways counts for 80 percent of all shipping.
The Highway Users works for better, safer highway transportation through public policy analysis, public information and education, and legislative and regulatory advocacy. It believes that good highways are essential to a strong economy and the costs of improving highway transportation should be borne by the users.
Led by President William D. Fay, the Highway Users has over 500 individual and 100 corporate/association members and affiliates in 18 states.
Wendell Cox and Jean Love are public policy consultants with the Wendell Cox Consultancy.
Both have worked on projects in the United States, Canada, Australia, Africa, Europe, and New
Zealand. They have recently established an Internet public policy journal, The Public Purpose.
Mr. Cox was appointed to three terms (1977-85) on the Los Angeles County Transportation
Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley and has chaired national committees on energy conservation
and urban transit planning. He also serves on the steering committee of the bi-ennial International
Conference on Competition and Ownership in Surface Passenger Transport. He holds an MBA
from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.
Ms. Love has performed research in a variety of fields, and edited three editions of a
comprehensive public policy manual (Legislative Issue Briefs). She organized the Third
International Conference on Competition and Ownership in Surface Passenger Transport, held in
Toronto in 1993. She earned a Masters degree from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
They are co-authors of many books and papers, including Moving America Competitively, The
Livable American City and People, Markets, and Government: A State Legislator's Guide to
Economics. Their practice is based in the St. Louis area.