Excerpts from “Roads to somewhere,” The Economist
…[H]ighways began expanding rapidly after President Dwight Eisenhower, 50 years ago this month, signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which committed the government to invest heavily in a national network of interstates.
…[T]he network that he authorised was often referred to as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The generals thought that better roads would make it easier to move military convoys around in case of attack, as well as to evacuate big cities in a hurry. The overpasses were made high enough so that ballistic missiles could be transported beneath them. Though the atom bombs and invaders never came, life in America would never again be the same.
The interstates replaced social interaction and serendipity with speed and efficiency, and some have lamented the change ever since. By 1962 John Steinbeck was writing about the disappearance of antique stores, factory outlets and “roadside stands selling squash juice.” He complained that the new roads would make it “possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”
The interstates paved the way for fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which set up shop near the access ramps. Besides changing the way that motorists eat, the new highways also transformed the ways in which companies moved their goods. One reason that Wal-Mart became a cost-cutting behemoth was because it exploited the logistical advantages of the new system faster than its competitors did.
Besides linking distant places to each other, the system has encircled many urban areas with “beltways,” which let motorists move between surrounding suburbs without having to bother with the cities. Once commuters began whizzing (on a good day) around those beltways, centrifugal force did the rest, propelling office space, staff and tax revenues away from the centre.
The big question now is whether Americans are willing to keep spending more than $80 billion a year of their tax money to maintain and upgrade the system. Clifford Winston, at the Brookings Institution, has tried to measure the benefits reaped from improved logistics. Although this is clearly an imprecise exercise, he reckons that government-financed highway investments have run into steeply diminishing returns since the 1980s.
…[D]rivers are also taxpayers and voters. And growing numbers of them are turned off by the corruption that goes with pork-barrel spending. Highway bills are a notorious source of rancid pork.
Some state governments — which face tighter fiscal constraints than the federal one — are toying with ideas for letting the private sector take over stretches of highway. Now that the interstate network is built, the challenge is to maintain it. For $3.8 billion, Indiana agreed this year to lease its toll road, which is part of I-80 and I-90, to an Australian-Spanish consortium for the next 75 years. The consortium will maintain the highway and keep the tolls; and it will no doubt face public pressure to do a good job. But it will not be selling squash juice from roadside stalls.