I made it back from my latest trip to Universal Studios after a long, tedious drive that took up the better part of Sunday. I’d intended to hammer out a belated Lazy Sunday upon my return, but I was so wiped from the drive, I just watched television instead.
With all the driving on I-4, I-95, I-26, I-77, and I-20, I had ample time to think about the pros and cons of the Interstate Highway System. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Interstate. On the love side of the equation, I appreciate the convenience of being able to drive vast distances in reasonable times. The trip that took us around seven hours to complete yesterday (and that was with terrible traffic and inclement weather) would have taken, according to Google Maps, between nine and ten hours. In reality, that would have been closer to eleven or twelve hours with stops, traffic, etc.
As an engine for economic growth, the Interstate is probably the best investment the federal government ever made. It was pitched to Congress as a national security project—we needed broad, interstate boulevards for our tanks to deploy swiftly against a Soviet invasion—an approach that John C. Calhoun attempted as Secretary of War in 1817 (under the strict constructionist Democratic-Republican James Madison, Calhoun’s Bonus Bill faced a swift veto). But the real benefit of the Interstate Highway System is its ability to move people and goods swiftly, cutting down on shipping and transportation costs, and making longer commutes feasible.
Granted, there were downsides: the small towns and tourist traps alongside old federal highways and State roads. Just as the old railroad towns withered up when the trains stopped running—or repurposed into some other form—many small towns died out when the Interstate diverted traffic away from them. Of course, the converse is true: many towns boomed when the Interstate weaved their way.
So, one could surmise I appreciate the Interstate for its convenience and beneficial qualities. So, where is the hate?
The hate comes in when considering the pitiful state of the Interstate Highway System. Much like local and State roads, the Interstates look like the surface of the moon. Building them was one task, a massive one; maintaining them is also quite important. Having built them, we should be able to maintain them more easily, no?
A few years ago, whilst attending a Republican Party meeting, I learned from my then-State representative that it costs $1 million to pave one mile of road. That seems insane, but considering the work crews, machinery, and materials that go into paving roads, it makes sense. Our legislature passed a bill to raise our gas tax by $0.02 a gallon per year for six years, topping at $0.12 per gallon (for South Carolina residents, we can get that money back when filing our State income taxes, so long as we keep track of how many gallons of gas we purchase; it’s tedious, but for me it usually comes out to another $40-50 back on my taxes), for the express purpose of improving our terrible roads.
Besides the embarrassing state of repair, our Interstates have not expanded to accommodate considerable population growth. I-95 is my least favorite Interstate in the country, not only because it is boring for long stretches, but because there is so much traffic on it. Because it’s the main thoroughfare between Miami and New York City (Florence, South Carolina is the halfway point, and has benefited from travelers stopping there for that reason), there is a tremendous flow of vehicles on it at any given time.
Despite that increased traffic flow, most of the Interstate is four lanes. That makes sense in some rural areas, but yesterday I found myself stuck in traffic for extended periods of time—even when there were no accidents! Simply crossing the Savannah River back into South Carolina resulted in an extended slowdown, as cars merged left as the third lane ran out.
These are all common complaints, but there does not seem to be any solution. It would seem to make sense to begin expanding the Interstate now to accommodate future population growth, but with our federal government woefully overextended as it is, that seems unlikely. Like with so many other issues, we’ll likely continue to paper over the problem, patching some potholes here and there, to muddle through, the problem gradually growing worse and worse.