The Endless Road 'Crisis'

EVEN BEFORE THE AUTO AGE, AMERICANS HAD A ""CRISIS.'' At the turn of the century, writes historian Bruce Seely, there were ""good road associations'' in 18 states plugging for improved highways. Little wonder. In 1896 only 7 percent of America's 2.1 million miles of roads were paved. But these agitators were mainly disgruntled bicyclists, not motorists. Given this tradition of grousing, no one should be surprised that this month's 40th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System is an odd mixture of celebration and complaint. Take it all with a boulder of salt.

Almost everything we ""know'' about highways is warped. We've got environmentalists insisting that the highway lobby scarred the landscape with cement and suburban sprawl. Wrong. Then there's the highway lobby itself: that collection of road contractors, automakers, truckers, oil companies and the AAA. It sees the interstates as the best thing since the Ten Commandments but also asserts that highways are rapidly crumbling, intolerably congested and horribly underfunded. That's also wrong.

Now, some facts. Americans love cars. Period. Even without the interstates, there would have been a highway orgy. In 1940 the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened. After World War II, New York authorized its thruway system. California had massive road plans. What sanctioned this building boom was the impulse to suburbanize and travel. Most Americans saw the postwar exodus from cities as social progress. Among residents of an early Levittown, 58 percent moved for more space or to become homeowners. Naturally, new suburbanites wanted better roads for better mobility.

And the car culture still reigns supreme. Indeed we are a more vehicle-saturated society than ever. Between 1969 and 1990, the share of households without a vehicle dropped from 21 to 9 percent; meanwhile, the share with two or more rose from 31 to 58 percent. People cherish cars' autonomy. After the 1970s' oil crises -- and steep jumps in gasoline prices -- carpooling enjoyed a boomlet. It's collapsed with gas prices (down 45 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 1980 and 1990). By 1990, carpooling accounted for only 13 percent of commuting trips; in 1980 that was 20 percent.

What the interstates did was channel the highway boom. The generous funding formula (a 90-10 federal-state split) sped construction, and Congress insisted that connections be made between states. Travel times dropped, while travel volumes rose. Compared with the mid-1950s, the travel time between New York and Cleveland is down a third. Highways abet social integration and not just economic efficiency. It's questionable whether the Olympics would take place in Atlanta if there hadn't been interstates (or desegregation, air conditioning and jet travel).

But all this is now endangered by neglect, claims the highway lobby. The AAA recently launched a campaign citing Federal Highway Administration estimates that road spending would have to rise 50 percent to keep a dire situation from getting worse. In fact, details of road studies paint a different picture:

Highway and bridge conditions seem to be improving. Between 1983 and 1991, the share of urban interstates rated in ""poor'' condition dropped from 16.8 to 7.7 percent; the share rated ""good'' rose from 53.4 to 60.1 percent. Ratings of most classes of roads and bridges have improved.

Spending on roads by local, state and the federal governments is at a historic high. In 1993, it was $88.5 billion, up 57 percent from 1980 in inflation-adjusted dollars, estimates analyst David Luberoff of Harvard.

Congestion doesn't seem to have worsened and may have eased -- at least judged by commuting times. In 1990 the average commute was 19.7 minutes, down from 22 in 1969. Meanwhile, commuting distances increased from 9.4 miles in 1969 to 10.4 miles, indicating faster travel speeds.

None of this means that today's road frustrations are phoney. Drivers stalled on the San Diego Freeway aren't imagining it; Washington, D.C.'s potholes are real. Lots of roads are in sorry shape; millions of commuters suffer stop-and-go traffic. But similar problems have always existed. Remember what happened in downtown Boston on Dec. 30, 1963? Congestion immobilized cars for four hours. On average, things haven't gotten worse and probably have gotten better.

The campaign to convince us otherwise aims to raise highway spending. The campaign features two loopy theories. The first is that the federal highway trust fund is being used to ""mask'' the overall federal budget deficit; the charge is that all the fuel taxes intended for highways aren't being spent on roads. This simply isn't true. Between 1956 and 1995, the highway fund received $297 billion in taxes and spent $307 billion. The main reason the fund spent more than it received -- and still has a ""surplus'' -- is that while money sits unused it earns ""interest'' from the rest of government. This is an accounting transfer.

The second dubious theory is that all fuel taxes should go for highway spending. Why? Of course, the tax is a legitimate user fee for construction and repair. But other possible reasons for the tax (to cut oil imports and pollution or simply to raise money) don't justify extra highway spending. As it is, the gas tax dedicated to highways is now 12 cents a gallon, up from 4 cents in 1982. The total gas tax is 18.4 cents; the rest goes for mass transit and deficit reduction. The highway lobby wants to divert more into road spending and put the trust fund ""off budget.''

Not so fast. Highway spending shouldn't be insulated from the political process that weighs the competing demands on government. Indeed, we ought to push that process back to the states. The Interstate System is built; let the states maintain it. Let them keep most gas-tax money and make most spending decisions. Most benefits of roads are enjoyed locally. Let local politicians decide among roads, prisons, schools and parks.

The decisions -- whether taken nationally or locally -- won't ever be easy. Americans don't like making choices, and on the subject of roads, we can never decide whether we have too many or too few. That's why the ""road crisis'' is forever.