Tom Still column No. 36-06
“It’s mid-life crisis time for the Interstate highway system”
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By Tom Still
MADISON – For me, the 50th birthday of the Interstate highway system felt more like a parking lot than a party.
Driving home last week from southern Virginia, our family artfully dodged congestion around Washington, D.C., but were snared by that giant grid of orange construction cones called Chicago. A combination of toll booth renovation and the start of Independence Day traffic meant the trip from Gary, Ind., to Madison took more than five hours, nearly twice the norm. Just south of Beloit on Friday, the traffic jam was so bad that television news crews photographed the endless line of vehicles from overpasses. 
I’m not complaining, though, because it gave me plenty of time to contemplate the Interstate highway system at 50 and how we owe it to ourselves to keep it young.
With nearly 47,000 miles of roadway coast to coast, the Interstate system in many ways lives up to the vision of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted a way to quickly move people and goods in the event of a national crisis. Nuclear Armageddon never came, but suburbs and a whole new way of American life did. Interstates have been blamed for the death of cities – and the credited with the unleashing of our post-war economy. The Interstate system is simultaneously praised as the greater public works project in the history of the world, and condemned as a land-devouring purveyor of urban sprawl.
On balance, I come down on the side of our ribbons of concrete. The fuels that power our cars and trucks may change, but it’s hard to imagine a day when the average American decides to climb out of his front seat. Sure, we need better airports and mass transit, but the Interstates aren’t likely to be turned into bicycle paths anytime soon.
Consider the recent data: During the past 25 years, travel on the Interstate system has grown by more than 200 percent while capacity has increased by just 17 percent. Truck traffic has become so heavy that our four-year-old son excitedly repeated the words, “Look, Mom, a Stoughton trailer!” about every 10 miles on our 2,000-mile trip. (They’re really nice trailers, unless you’re stuck behind one.)
Wisconsin has 743 miles of Interstate highways, which represents less than 1 percent of the state’s 113,700 miles in roadways. But those 743 miles carry 18 percent of the traffic. The state Department of Transportation estimates that traffic on Wisconsin’s I-system is up 140 percent in 25 years, while capacity has grown by 35 percent.
Something has to give. Will it be our driving habits? Not even $3 gasoline appears to have done that yet. In metropolitan areas, Interstate congestion can and ultimately will be relieved by increased use of mass transit, whether that be high-speed rail, commuter rail or express buses. Then again, this is a big country. What may work in New York or Chicago would be ridiculously expensive in America’s wide open spaces
Should we invest more tax dollars in the I-system? There’s not enough money in the federal highway fund to pay for necessary repairs, much less expansions. The federal gasoline tax hasn’t increased since 1993, but pity the member of Congress who would propose raising it with today’s high prices.
Should all Interstate highways become toll roads, as suggested by some experts? A toll is a tax on people who use the service most, so that may be a fair option – but only if technology continues to eliminate the need for stop-and-go toll stops. If there’s one thing people hate more than paying a toll, it’s slowing down to do so.
The Interstate system is a massive investment in our national infrastructure. That investment must be protected. Even in an era when people are increasingly living and working on the information superhighway of the Internet, our economy still depends on the old-fashioned highways of the Interstate, too.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.