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Highway Hell: America's Interstates Are Falling Apart - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 3/18/2015 Angus MacKenzie
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Katherine Dean was at the wheel of her Chevy Malibu one Tuesday afternoon in February, out running errands in Morningside, Maryland. Her route took her along Suitland Road, not far from Andrews Air Force base, and under the busy I-95 freeway. Just as she approached the I-95 underpass, several large chunks of concrete suddenly pounded the Malibu's hood, windshield, and roof. Washington's Beltway had literally started to fall apart.

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Dean was shaken, but unharmed: None of the concrete chunks had penetrated the Malibu's windshield. She was lucky, unlike the 13 people who were killed when a bridge over the Mississippi River on I-35 in Minneapolis collapsed without warning in 2007.

The 47,840-mile Interstate Highway System pulses with the heartbeat of America. Traffic on the interstates accounts for a quarter of all vehicle miles traveled in America, but nearly half the miles traveled by freight-hauling semis. You'd think infrastructure so vital to the health and welfare of the nation would be a top priority among Washington's politicians. Sadly, you'd be wrong. The Highway Trust Fund, set up in 1956 to finance the Interstate System, is basically broke, and few in the current clown car circus on Capitol Hill seem to want to do anything about it.

The Highway Trust Fund's main source of revenue has always been a tax on gasoline. The original tax was 3 cents a gallon, or roughly 15 percent of the retail price. Ronald Reagan bumped it to 9 cents a gallon in 1983, George H.W. Bush increased it to 14 cents a gallon in 1990, and Bill Clinton to 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993. It hasn't been raised since. That 18.4 cents buys about 40 percent less today than it did 22 years ago. Meanwhile, America's cars and trucks have become more fuel efficient, and Americans are traveling fewer miles than they used to. It's a perfect storm, with potentially devastating consequences. Some estimates project the gap between gas tax revenue and needed highway spending could be as much as $170 billion over the next 10 years.

The Highway Trust Fund ... is basically broke, and few in the current clown car circus on Capitol Hill seem to want to do anything about it.

A bill introduced in the Senate last year by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy proposed increasing the federal gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and indexing it to inflation. The bill went nowhere. But even if it had, it wouldn't have fixed the problem. Federal highway spending has increased from $33 billion a year to $53 billion a year in the past 15 years, and will continue to rise. Why? The Interstate Highway System is getting old. It needs work.

Most of the system was completed more than 35 years ago, and pavements designed to last 50 years are nearing the end of their useful lives while handling volumes of traffic their engineers never anticipated. Years of neglect haven't helped, either: A 2004 federal report estimated 6,000 of the Interstate System's 115,000 bridges require structural repairs. American spending on infrastructure—as a percentage of GDP—is about half that of Europe, according to The Economist. It says the U.S. spends roughly the same share of its GDP on its roads as Sweden, a small country with an excellent public transportation system. Clearly, it's not enough.

Though conceived in the middle of the 20th century, back when Dinah Shore was urging newly minted middle-class Americans to see the USA in their Chevrolet, the Interstate Highway System could, ironically, prove far more important to the country in the middle of the 21st. The reason? Autonomous vehicles. In terms of its layout, the Interstate Highway System provides an ideal basic infrastructure for the coming generation of highly efficient, self-driving vehicles, including computer-controlled, self-driving semis capable of hauling freight virtually nonstop across the country.

The Interstate Highway System could easily remain the concrete and steel cardiovascular system of America's economy for a long time yet. We need to keep it healthy.

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