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March 09, 2006

Happy birthday, Interstate Highway System

The U.S. Interstate Highway System, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 20th century, turns 50 today.

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Which led to the destruction of so many cities. Rip them OUT!

Not just an engineering feat - a feat of governance. Undertaking a public works project of that scope, with that kind of geographical breadth, would be unheard of now. Now, we can't even take care of our levees.

The region I'm from had suffered a long time from the lack of a solid, long-distance transportation infrastructure. The interstate highway system helped us out the way rural electrification had just before.

And yet now everyone there's a "small government" Republican. Frustrating.

An Interstate Public Transportation System might have been nice to have. I'm still jealous of Europe's railway network. The current debate about energy dependence might sound a bit different. The katrina evacuation may have run a different course too.

I remember a quote from Sen. Pat Moynihan to the effect that in lieu of an urban planning strategy we have the interstate highway system. Tried to find it but am short of time right now.

In another context I thought was funny and striking, I read an archaeologist on the subject of the paucity of pre-Clovis paleoindian artifacts. He said that it was difficult for modern people to concieve of how spare their industry was; that, while paleoindians left a few tiny obsidian chips for us to find, we scatter around freeway overpasses.

No great engineering feat despoils so much of the landscape.

It may have been a great feat of engineering and planning, in that it was very hard to do, but that doesn't rule out it also being a colossal mistake.

The bigger the engineering project, the harder it is to evaluate its impact. The interstate highway system brought prosperity to a lot of areas that were previously cut off from the benefits of commerce. But the planners were also quite open about some terribly unjust policies, specifically favoring white areas over minority areas. The highway system fostered the growth of suburbs and exurbs and the slow death of cities. It cleared natural habitat and reinforced oil dependence. Also, its ugly.

When I breeze down I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, I sometimes think of the middle-class, mostly-black neighborhood in St. Paul (Rondo) that was ripped in half by the freeway, despite the fact that there was a viable route a couple miles to the north. But no, that neighborhood was deemed "obsolete" by the highway planners, so out it went.

On the other hand, it makes it a lot easier to travel between cities.

The system is military-inspired infrastructure. There was a cross-country mobilization exercise that took two months. It was decided that the the US land mass was undefendable. Dwight Eisenhower was on the project and was a prime mover in the construction during the 50's.

Of course an investment in rail infrastructure of the same magnitude would have had similar mobilization benefits. In WWII, the USSR relocated entire cities by rail, including all their industry (think tractor factories).

It always frustrates me that the government won't subsidize rail infrastructure they way they do roads.

On interstates and cities, I'm torn. I'm sympathetic that they led to defacto segregation, but have you ever tried to drive into DC? Nearly everything inside the beltway is a surface street.

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