“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Bridging the desert southwest and the Intermountain West, I-15 links several key transcontinental east-west corridors. Although I-15 has been giving drivers headaches over traffic construction for several years, the fact that it exists and anyone can drive it from Canada in the north to Mexico in the south is a testament to Eisenhower’s enduring presidential legacy. Fully half of America’s current highway systems have their origins in Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Eisenhower’s investment is still delivering solid returns: America’s roads boost significant economic growth and social mobility. By dramatically expediting and substantially reducing costs for the transportation of goods, the freeway system changed the way we do business—enabling national supply chains to efficiently make and deliver products. Good, efficient roads make commuting feasible, thereby widening the pool of potential employees and employers. By connecting small towns with larger cities, freeways improve Americans’ access to education, healthcare, and employment.
Moreover, infrastructure development is itself a hotspot for jobs, with more than 14 million people working in related fields. And although it may seem quaint, domestic leisure travel in the U.S actually has a $650 billion annual impact on our economy, and 9 out of 10 leisure trips in the United States are taken by automobile. While today we may take it for granted, much of our modern capacity to travel in our cars to visit more distant places across the country has been made possible thanks to Eisenhower’s grand endeavor.
In spite of these benefits, infrastructure spending slowed in the late 60s, and has since declined to a 30-year low in 2014. As a percentage of GDP, federal spending on infrastructure has been cut in half over the past 30 years, and our roads are paying the price: the Federal Highway Administration’s most recent survey points out that almost 20 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition. Further, congestion on highways costs us over $100 billion every year in wasted time and fuel. Additional costs and other transportation-related inefficiencies are making American businesses less competitive than they could be otherwise. Once a pioneer in road infrastructure, the United States now ranks 14th in the world for quality of roads.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that roads, bridges, and transit are in serious need of $1.4 trillion in additional funding—even after Congress allocated $305 billion towards highways at the end of last year via the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Contrary to its name, FAST required years of Congressional debate and was the first long-term national transportation funding bill to pass in more than a decade. Based on the herculean effort required to bring FAST to the finish line, the prospect of additional federal funding is almost certainly doomed to languish in Congress, leaving the responsibility to revitalize roads to the states (which many argue is a state’s responsibility anyhow).
Although some states, still reeling from the Great Recession, are hesitant to take on debt to finance infrastructure projects, investment in our current and future infrastructure is often a smart long-term decision. It is feasible: while the current recovery progress is slower than ideal, total state and local debt as a share of the overall economy are below pre-recession levels. Furthermore, with interest rates still as low as they are, states have cheap access to capital necessary for financing infrastructure. And the returns are typically solid: the Congressional Budget Office estimates $1.00–$2.50 of GDP growth for every dollar invested in infrastructure.
Although Idaho’s relatively-low traffic volume doesn’t create undue congestion, road quality is a big concern: about 45 percent of roads in the state are in poor or mediocre condition. Fortunately, over the last ten years, the state has invested over $850 million in highway improvements to increase traffic capacity and improve safety. While this has already delivered returns for business endeavors and local way of life, sustained infrastructure spending will be required to keep up with Idaho’s growing economy and population.
Our country’s highways effectively connect us with work, education, healthcare, and cultural diversity across the nation. Although no one enjoys the traffic delays or expense associated with construction, maintaining these roads is our responsible nod to the past and our gift to future residents. Significant long-term advantages justify the short-term inconveniences.