End the interstate system?

Last week I shared on our social media feeds a story from The Week titled, It's time to abolish the Interstate Highway System, by Evan Jenkins. It was a bad headline -- the article doesn't suggest we go out and tear down the interstates but that we shift the way we fund it -- but I understand that writers don't get to pick their own headlines (unless you write your own blog). 

Nonetheless, the article was worth reading. Jenkins suggests a "grand bargain" on infrastructure where Republicans get local control while Democrats get more funding for some key investments that would make urban transportation systems function a lot better. He believes states would then be more apt to toll the interstates -- something currently illegal on the original system -- and that would lead to better spending decisions. From the article:

One consequence of the DOT's need-based funding is that it encourages states to compete for dollars by wildly overstating how much infrastructure they actually need, even as the actual need continues to decline. Tolling would further reduce infrastructure demand by encouraging carpooling, shorter commutes, and alternative modes of transportation. With the big federal dollars unavailable, states will discover surprisingly quickly how many of their crucial infrastructure projects are not actually so crucial after all.

Whether you agree with this or not -- and I tend to -- some of the reaction from social media land were more than a little kneejerk (which is not unusual for social media, but unusual for our crowd). A sampling....

Deregulation, tolls, and state control will be a TOTAL disaster. Chuck, what are you smoking?

I agree with stopping new highways, but giving them to the states with no strings attached would be a disaster. The feds may be screwed up, but the states are ten times worse.


One of the better questions that came out of this was whether or not the states would do as good a job of maintaining the system if it were funded at the state and not the federal level. I think it is important to point out that it is the states maintaining these segments right now. The federal DOT does not administer any contracts on the interstate, hire any paving companies or employ anyone to fill potholes; that is done by the state DOT's. So states certainly have the competency to do this. The question is: would they have the incentive?

This is an open question and one worthy of debate. I've argued that a lot of the highways we have built are not worthy of being maintained, at least not to the standard they are currently built to. Most interstates that cut through a major city would fall into this category. If states decided it was in their best interest to go back to the original intent of Eisenhower and have the interstates bypass their cities, I would totally support a "downgrade" of those segments left behind.

What do we do with an interstate across, say, Wyoming, if the traffic counts aren't high enough for the state to justify maintaining the roadway? I don't think this is likely, and I think the negative ramifications to the Wyoming economy of letting this system go bad would preclude it happening, traffic counts or not. Nonetheless, we could theoretically face this situation. If that is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night, you have some real paternalistic/materialistic tendencies that my more pragmatic worldview just can't reconcile.

I've put out my own plan -- you can get a copy of it here -- where I shift the federal gas tax entirely to maintenance of the base interstate system. Anything new -- and maintaining anything beyond the base system -- would need to be funded by direct user fees (I suggest a mileage charge). This would leave in place a national system funded by a national tax but provide a framework for states and localities to make their own decisions on local enhancements.

No matter what view you hold, the conversation in Washington DC right now -- and in nearly all state capitols -- is the same as it has been: how do we create a political coalition that gets us more money to continue to do what we are currently doing, plus whatever else is needed to get the votes? A recent mindless Washington Post article quoted industry and political insiders bolstering the false underlying assumption of urgent need:

The money [Federal Highway Trust Fund] is set to run out — once again — on May 31. As added consequences of failure: hundreds of thousands of construction jobs put at risk and perpetuation of the widespread belief that partisan discord rules Washington.

An estimated $6.5 billion would keep highway projects afloat and construction workers employed until the 2015 fiscal year ends Sept. 30. But it would take about $100 billion in additional revenue to fund a six-year transportation bill that virtually everyone considers ideal.

Count me as someone who is not part of the Washington Post's "virtually everyone" category, although these days I'm not feeling nearly as lonely in my beliefs as I once was. Strong Towns advocates, whether in support of the Evan Jenkins piece or not, should nonetheless be happy to see the transportation conversation expanding.