In 1919, Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower was a tank corps observer participating in the Transcontinental Motor Convoy, a fleet of 81 Army vehicles that crossed the United States in record time: 62 days. I don't know whether Ike was thinking of that convoy when he signed the landmark legislation that authorized funding for the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways 50 years ago. But the bill he signed that June day proved to be a major milepost in the development of a highway system that has had profound effects on the way we move goods, where we live and the way we live.
As we have reported several times in the last couple of years, the system is showing its age. The demands on it are stressing it far beyond what its creators likely ever imagined.
It may be worth reflecting a bit on what a political and engineering marvel the Interstate Highway System represents. In the May-June issue of its bimonthly magazine, TR News, the Transportation Research Board did precisely that. As part of a special report on what it hailed as "The Interstate Achievement," the magazine provided a look back at what it took to build the system, what it has meant and what the future holds. (I learned about the 1919 convoy from the issue.)
According to TR News's account, the law that Eisenhower signed emerged from more than two decades of debate over what the nation's highway system should look like and how it would be funded. The first design for a 26,000-mile national highway system dates to the late 1930s. The result was the highway bill—at the time an unprecedented act of central planning for the federal government.
Also unprecedented was the widespread political deference accorded highway planners for the next 30-plus years. Jonathan Gifford, a professor in the school of public policy at George Mason University, writes in TR News that "earmarks" (funds reserved for special purposes) were rare in highway bills through that period.
The loss of consensus epitomized by the thousands of earmarks in last year's highway bill may be one of the greatest obstacles to addressing the nation's infrastructure challenge. Gifford writes, "Conceiving and realizing the nation's transportation future will be an ongoing contest among often strongly held views about mobility, accessibility, equity, environmental stewardship, economic competitiveness, and resource conservation." The nation has met that challenge once. Whether it can do so again, given widely disparate views and political realities, remains uncertain.