Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Roads More Traveled

I live in Florida during the winter. My house is about two miles from I-75. If I go south on the Interstate, I will reach the end of this highway in about 200 miles at Hialeah, FL. From Hialeah, it is 1785 miles to the terminus of the highway in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I spent most of my childhood growing up in the "Soo". My dad still lives there.

We take the Interstate highways for granted. They connect us in a highway grid that lets us get to virtually any area of the country. According to Wikipedia, there are 46,837 miles of road in the Interstate Highway system. The need for the highway system emerged from experience during World War I when the army found that the railroads could not transport all the needed supplies to support the war effort. Truck convoys were added to supplement the railroads. I can just imagine what that must have looked like in 1917. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower set off from Washington on a coast-to-coast truck convoy to San Francisco to explore highway readiness in the event of another war. His experience then, coupled with his later experiences with the autobahn in Germany during World War II convinced him of the need for a high-speed national highway network. At the urging of President Eisenhower, legislation was passed in 1956 to begin the network and it was completed in 1991. The cost was originally projected to be $25 billion. The 2006 estimate for the cost of the system is $425 billion.

I was prompted to write about the highway system while reading a book called, Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. Murphy draws many parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire. Murphy points out that this is not a new idea. The Roman Republic was, in fact, the model of the Founding Fathers. Murphy makes the comparison of the Roman road system to the Interstate highways. The Roman system at its peak consisted of about 53,000 miles of roads. The rationale for the two systems was the same: a way to rapidly move military supplies. The Roman mileposts were all tied to a Golden Milepost in the Forum in Rome. The Zero Milestone of the Interstate system lies in the Ellipse in Washington, just south of the White House. The old saw, "All roads lead to Rome." was based not only on a political reality but an engineering one as well. The same could certainly be said for Washington, DC today.

The Interstate highways make our lives immeasurably easier (disregarding the traffic jams around major cities). But they need to be maintained, not something we seem to be fond of doing. Just last summer, the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis. The cause appears to be a combination of design flaws and poor maintenance. There is very little glory in a keeping a good highway system least, until we see it fall apart. The glory is all in the new project, the new bridge, the new interchange. We would do well to take better care of what we already have.

We merely want to live in peace with all the world, to trade with them, to commune with them, to learn from their culture as they may learn from ours, so that the products of our toil may be used for our schools and our roads and our churches and not for guns and planes and tanks and ships of war.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
34th president of US 1953-1961 (1890 - 1969)

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