It’s time to end the Interstate Highway System

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The 114th Congress may seem like an unlikely source of major reform. With Republicans controlling both houses and a second-term Democratic president wielding the veto, most observers aren’t hoping for a big deal on, well, anything. But one thing that will need to be addressed is the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund, which Congress only briefly bailed out in July. So I’d like to come up with a solution that in principle Republicans should like, but which also has long-term consequences that Democrats should embrace: abolish the interstate highway system.

The Interstate Highway System is often hailed as one of President Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishments. During the time of the largest public works program in US history, its 41,000-mile highway cost $ 25 billion to build in 1956. Today, it’s still a extensive centralized motorway network with a few regional toll roads dotted around. Ninety percent of its budget is supposed to be covered by the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund. And this is where the problem lies.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund’s budget deficit will be around $ 15 billion each year. You can quite easily attribute this to the fact that the fund’s coffers are fueled almost exclusively by the federal gas tax. Even though fuel efficiency has improved and Americans have reduced their driving, the tax itself has not been increased since 1993.

To solve the problem, Democrats want to raise the tax. Many Republicans want to phase out federal funding and turn it over to the states. I think Republicans could actually attract Democrats to their position, provided a few crucial political choices are made.

The most important thing that abolishing the interstate highway system will allow states to fund their highway infrastructure through tolls, which is strongly discouraged by the federal government. States would even have the option to take it a step further by privatizing their highways, as former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did very successfully with a single highway in 2006.

Eliminating federal funding would also force states to abandon needlessly unnecessary projects. One of the consequences of DOT needs-based funding is that it encourages states to compete for dollars by vastly overestimating the amount of infrastructure they actually need, even as the real need continues to decline. The toll would further reduce the demand for infrastructure by encouraging carpooling, shorter journeys and alternative modes of transport. With the big federal dollars unavailable, states will discover surprisingly quickly how many of their crucial infrastructure projects are not so critical after all.

So why should the Obama administration get started? Because the cars and the infrastructure we have built around them are a disaster. They kill over 30,000 Americans a year and maim many more. They degrade air quality and contribute to global warming. They represent a huge economic burden on the working poor, and the immense amount of land devoted to their storage has devastated our urban centers and made housing unaffordable.

By discouraging counterproductive highway projects and making intensive driving and suburban life less enjoyable because of tolls, we can set our sights on a safer, cleaner future. If we could even lower ourselves to a level of car dependency in Western Europe, we would reduce the number of road fatalities by a third of their current value and improve our quality of life in countless ways.

This is where Democratic accommodations must be met.

Democrats are expected to demand, in return for cutting a major federal program, two relatively small budget items in return. First, we need to get more trucks off the highways because they cause much more damage to the road than cars. Properly calibrated tolls should help discourage long-haul truck shipping, but for there to be an alternative we need to strengthen our rail infrastructure. The current state of rail freight in the United States is excruciating: it can take more than 30 hours for a train to pass through Chicago. A relatively small investment will go a long way in moving more goods from the roads to the rails, thus significantly reducing the maintenance costs of the roads we have available.

Second, we must provide a way forward for self-reliant cities and suburbs. While the Obama administration had already proposed an ambitious high-speed rail plan in 2009, the exorbitant costs involved leave little chance that it will be achieved any time soon. Instead, we should focus on making better use of existing rail infrastructure, which is all too often surrounded by parking lots instead of residences and workplaces. To this end, we should set up a fund to encourage transit-oriented development by subsidizing low-parking and high-density projects near regional rail and rapid transit.

Abolishing the Interstate Highway System is a win-win solution: Republicans can claim the credit for cutting a tax and eliminating a major government program, and President Obama can enact real change.


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