Sixty years ago last month, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. It marked the beginning of the Interstate Highway System, which now bear's Ike's name. It was completed 35 years later and now totals 47,835 miles. The cost: more than $506 billion in today's dollars.
In this era of austerity and gridlock, the Interstate System is like Project Apollo, the discoveries out of Bell Labs, the infrastructure built by the New Deal, and victory ensured by the Arsenal of Democracy and American armies and fleets triumphing in World War II. It was a model of what we could do together, before we became a venal and wicked people, paralyzed by greed, bigotry, and right-wing extremism.
But the Interstates came with a cost, some of it known at the time by a few forward or skeptical thinkers, more of it obvious today.
Wal-Mart is often cast as the force that destroyed Main Street. But before the Beast of Bentonville were the Interstates. By taking traffic out of small towns, they deprived merchants of much-needed customers. As a result, those towns were dying long before Sam Walton's store became a monopolistic empire. You don't have to look far to see the consequences. Downtown Mesa was thriving before U.S. 60 diverted traffic to the Superstition Freeway. Although not officially part of the Interstate system, this showed the results. Mesa is still trying to recover the dense, authentic downtown that once existed. Downtown Kingman, Williams, and Winslow were all dealt death blows by Interstate 40. Flagstaff was a rare exception. Why did Prescott and Wickenburg keep lively, diverse cores? The lack of Interstates, and for many years even multi-lane highways.
Interstates, and freeways in general, did nothing but destroy big cities. In Seattle, for example, Interstate 5 severed Capitol Hill from downtown, causing hundreds of historic buildings to be demolished. As with cities across the country, it made flight from the city to new suburbs easy. The damage from the unnecessary Papago Freeway Inner Loop, Interstate 10, to central Phoenix has been well-documented in these columns. More often than not, these urban freeways became congestion generators — every widening only made traffic worse.
In addition to wrecking the cohesion of small towns and cities, the Interstates were on the front lines of enabling wasteful, destructive sprawl. Drive along Interstate 85 around Greenville and Spartanburg, S.C., for example, and you will find a linear mess of shopping strips, chain restaurants, office "parks," boxy corporate gas station-convenience stores, and otherwise isolated subdivisions stretching out for more than 30 miles. All that connects them is the Interstate. This charmless monotony has been repeated throughout the country, destroying farmland and wild habitat along with the commercial and residential diversity of real towns and cities. The ribbons of concrete pulled us apart as a people.
The Interstates played a decisive role in destroying the American passenger train system. Before the 1970s, passenger trains were operated by individual railroad companies. Some, such as the Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, and New York Central, took immense pride in their service. While federal taxpayers were spending billions to build roads and airports, Washington and the states were taxing and regulating railroads as if they were the monolithic beasts of the 19th century. In fact, they were ailing. By 1968, Washington removed its last lifeline, moving the mail from passenger trains to trucks. No balanced national transportation strategy or plan would be forthcoming.
People traveling by automobile or airliner would be heavily subsidized — gas and ticket taxes hardly covered the costs — while private-sector railroads were not only left on their own but penalized. As a result, the finest passenger rail system in the world was destroyed. Amtrak's 1971 creation led to the loss of scores of trains, hundreds when compared with 1956. Its paltry federal subsidy must be renewed yearly amid the anti-rail fetish of the right. Nobody expects cars to "pay their way." With Amtrak, every dollar is a battleground. Imagine if the federal government had simply paid the private railroads to continue passenger service?
With climate change, the blunder of the Interstates is more clear. Along with airliners, cars are the biggest producers of greenhouse gases. According to the Federal Highway Administration, about 25 percent of all vehicle miles driven in America used the Interstates in 2013.
Despite all this, the notion of rebuilding our conventional passenger rail system, much less high-speed rail, is seen as outlandishly costly and impossible. This is also a mindset that the Interstates helped create. Few people younger than 50 can imagine, much less actually remember, the pre-Interstate world. The great engineering feats now tend to involve railroads, and they are being done elsewhere, such as Switzerland's new Gotthard Base Tunnel. Yankee ingenuity? Nowhere to be found in our 1970s transportation system, overwhelmed by the demands of a 21st century nation and planet.
To be fair, the Interstate System was a product of its time: cheap gasoline, the popularity of automobiles, heavily-subsidized suburbia, the dolorous outcomes of the urban planning orthodoxy so rightly despised by Jane Jacobs, a nation half the population of today. It would be unhelpful "presentism" to blame Ike, although some at the time saw the negative effects of superhighways. But we should be measured in celebrating this anniversary. We can do so many great things together, still. But building more freeways isn't one of them. I remember a pre-Interstate West, and I mourn its loss. And, yes, I know this will not be a popular column.