Sixty years ago today President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and in doing so created the Interstate Highway System. President Eisenhower explained the necessity of an interstate system in a 1955 statement to Congress:
“Together, the uniting forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear—United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”
Now encompassing 47,000 miles of roadway, the Interstate Highway System runs through all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Interstates have transformed the way we move goods and people in the U.S. In 1919, then Lt. Colonel Eisenhower traveled in an 80 vehicle military convoy from Washington, DC to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days, inspiring him to create the system. Today that drive could be completed in about three days. The Interstate Highway System cost approximately $500 billion (in 2016 dollars) to build, but America’s investment has paid off, literally. The system has returned more than $6 in economic productivity for each $1 it cost.
Today’s America would have been unimaginable to President Eisenhower and the country will likely change in ways we can’t now fathom in the next 60 years. Whatever the future holds, the one thing that’s always needed is money. Funding for the Interstate Highway System has been flat for years, allowing for basic maintenance but little innovation. At current funding levels, it will be impossible for the interstate system to modernize and meet the needs of our growing country.
In order to invest sufficiently in the Interstate Highway System, Congress needs to overhaul its federal funding source—the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). The HTF is primarily funded by an 18.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline. This rate has not been increased since 1993, meaning inflation has cut its value by 40% over the last 23 years. As advancements in fuel efficiency continue, drivers will need to buy gas less often, further reducing the HTF’s income. As electric vehicles catch on, drivers will pay almost no taxes to maintain the roads and bridges they drive on.
We’ll need a new way to take in the user fees for the Highway Trust Fund in the coming decades. One alternative funding mechanism is a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee. This fee would be assessed on each vehicle owner based on how many miles they’ve driven. Some proposals call for varying the fee so that heavier vehicles like semi-trucks (which do more damage to roads) would pay more. Mileage-based fees are currently being tested in several states. VMT fees could provide stable revenue for the HTF, which in turn would allow for adequate investment in the future of the Interstate Highway System.
Happy birthday, Interstate Highway System!
We wouldn’t be here without you.