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06/18/2024 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/18/2024 09:02

America Is Investing in Roads Again. Will We Get It Right

This article first appeared in the May/June issue Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Join the clubto receive our award-winning magazine, and as part of the first-ever HDC Days from June 21 to June 23, Hagerty Drivers Club members will be eligible for some amazing deals, cool contests, and epic events and experiences. Not an HDC member? Sign up today!

With apologies to the time-traveling Doc Brown, it's certain that wherever we're going, we will indeed need roads. To that end, Congress has recently passed massive infrastructure bills-2021's Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and 2022's Inflation Reduction Act-with billions for our beleaguered road network.

To understand the aim and potential impact of these efforts, we must travel, Marty McFly-style, to the last time the federal government took such a big swing at improving infrastructure. In the early 1950s, the United States had more automakers but fewer cars. Some 30 percent of Americans, many of them living in overcrowded cities, didn't own one at all. Even auto factories tended to rely on trains to deliver parts and workers. Oh, and our roads? Generally awful-narrow, hazardous, and slow to travel along.

The last point wasn't lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had won World War II thanks in large part to the Army's ability to move lots of materiel around Europe. So, with his encouragement, Congress in 1956 passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It was a staggering investment at nearly $25 billion (about $290 billion in 2024 dollars). Clifford W. Enfield, general counsel for the Bureau of Public Roads, described the bill as "America's new design for living," and declared it would "dwarf any prior peacetime endeavors of mankind."

John C. Lodge Expressway [M-10] from Seldon pedestrian bridge, south & north.Michigan State Highway Department

Bureaucrats love to exaggerate the importance of their projects, but Enfield was right. The highway system revolutionized every aspect of American life, from where we live to race relations to how we shop. The changes pervaded the automobile itself. Stretches of wide, straight interstate encouraged bigger, more powerful cars. Just as important, the new infrastructure enabled companies like GM to leave cramped city factories for massive single-floor assembly lines supplied mainly by highways. Smaller competitors like Packard, who couldn't swing such investments, eventually went out of business.

Today, more than 90 percent of households have at least one car, according to U.S. census data. Almost all those cars are equipped with assistance technologies that proliferated in the 1950s such as automatic transmissions and power steering. And the so-called design for living was (and is) broadly popular, what with its idyll of a white picket fence in the suburbs. Yet already by the 1960s the side effects-smog, impoverished city neighborhoods, increased congestion-were becoming apparent. Among the early naysayers were car magazines; a 1961 Road & Track cover story declared highways "our enemy."

Responsibility for fixing these ills was largely placed on cars themselves. Too much pollution? Pass emissions standards. Too many people dying in accidents? Mandate safety equipment. This was politically convenient, as appetite for massive government investments faded. There was also the perception-partially true-that cars could be updated faster than roads.

"It sounded appealing because they didn't have to invest in infrastructure-the car is going to figure it out on its own," said Gabor Orosz, a University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor who focuses on automated vehicles and traffic flow.

In recent years, though, there's been renewed awareness of the role infrastructure plays. For this, we can partially thank the continued struggles of autonomous cars. "It turns out there are many scenarios where, if you have to solve the problem with onboard sensors, it's going to be very expensive," said Orosz.

Unsplash/Jared Murray

With all this context, it's possible to travel back to the future and understand the latest federal efforts as overdue attempts to burnish what the original highway act got right, and fix what it got wrong. There's a lot of money for roads: more than $100 billion for maintenance, with an additional $2 billion toward low-carbon construction materials. Yet there are billions more for alternatives to roads-namely rail-as well as funding for localities to decommission highways and build more walkable neighborhoods. Even Detroit, the Motor City, is taking part, with plans to shrink a downtown freeway into a surface street and proposals for new light rail.

Exactly how these investments will pan out is tough to predict, but here's one hopeful guess: Smarter infrastructure might just help save driving-at least, the sort we care about. A future in which more commuters take light rail, for instance, could be one in which automakers face less pressure to sell EVs and in which fewer people come to connote "driving" with "morning traffic." In short, we'll have roads, but perhaps fewer and better ones.

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