Highways and the Spirit of a Free People

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In praise of our NHS.

It is impossible to listen to a British politician talk about the National Health Service without noticing the constant use of the possessive. It’s never “the NHS.” It’s “our NHS.” To an American ear, this English usage sounds strange. We, too, have broadly popular entitlement programs, but one rarely hears a politician talk of “our Social Security” or “our Medicare.”

In 2009, a man at a town-hall meeting for Bob Inglis told the representative, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” That’s, uh, not how any of this works, but his heart was in the right place. Hesitance to collective thinking is a healthy instinct of the American citizenry. Our skepticism of politicians (I’ll gladly use the possessive for that) benefits us more often than not.

But while we never use “our” to describe it, we do have an NHS. And unlike the Brits, we can give qualified praise of ours without soiling our reputation as freedom-loving people.

Our NHS is the National Highway System. It was so designated by Congress in 1995, and it includes over 220,000 miles of American roadway. The entire Interstate Highway System is included, but it only makes up less than one quarter of the NHS’s total mileage. The rest are U.S. routes, state highways, and defense roads. Altogether, it’s the largest highway network in the world.

The 1995 designation from Congress gives a false sense of coherency to a network that developed in fits and starts throughout American history. It seems that nobody has ever been quite sure what the government’s role in road construction should be.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to “establish Post Offices and post Roads.” While there’s only one, brief paragraph of commentary in the Federalist Papers on this clause, it contains a big idea — the seed for the construction of our sprawling highway network. Madison concludes Federalist No. 42 with this:

The power of establishing post roads must, in every view, be a harmless power and may, perhaps, by judicious management become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the States can be deemed unworthy of the public care.

Madison is wisely cautious in his assessment. He knows the importance of “judicious management,” and he knows it is often found wanting in government. We can all think of government mismanagement on a highway project — whether it’s been something unnecessary and wasteful or necessary and poorly (or maliciously) executed. But Madison also knows that roads that are used by the public are never going to be “unworthy of the public care” and recognizes the potential for “great public conveniency.” Roads would forevermore be a public concern in America, as they have been in most places since at least ancient Rome.

What that public care entails was — and still is — hotly contested. Does it mean that roads should be constructed, owned, and operated by government? Perhaps that they should be constructed privately but managed by government? How about private construction and operation with government regulations?

Highways are not public goods under the textbook economic definition. A public good is non-rivalrous, meaning that one person using it doesn’t leave less for another person to use, and non-excludable, meaning that one person can’t be stopped from free-riding on another person’s payment. Highways are clearly rivalrous, as anyone who has been in a traffic jam can attest. And excluding free-riders is fairly easy with tolling. Yet most of our highways are publicly owned and operated today.

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Leaving the land of theory, confusion over the government’s role in roads has been with us since the very start. As David Forte writes in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, it wasn’t clear to early American government officials what the postal clause meant by “establish.” Some, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, thought it meant to designate already existing roads for postal use. Others, such as Joseph Story, thought it meant to construct new roads for postal use. Forte believes that Story had the better textual argument considering that “establish” elsewhere clearly meant the power to create. Congress has the power to “establish” rules for naturalization in Article I, and Article III gives Congress the power to “establish” federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court. According to Forte, Story believed that once built, a post road would be subject to the laws of the state through which it runs. That idea certainly won the day, and our Interstates are patrolled by state police, not the FBI or some other federal agency.

The first federally funded road was authorized by Congress in 1806. Long before the era of catchy acronyms, it was simply called “the National Road.” The purpose of the National Road was to connect the West — which at that time meant anything west of the Appalachians — with the East at the then-important transportation hub of Cumberland, Md. Construction started in 1811 and continued in phases until the road reached Vandalia, Ill., in 1837. Congress gradually turned control of the road over to the states through which it ran because the costs stopped being worthwhile.

The National Road occupied prominent space in the American psyche. The Federal Highway Administration’s Rickie Longfellow writes:

The height of the National Road’s popularity came in 1825 when it was celebrated in song, story, painting and poetry. During the 1840s popularity soared again. Travelers and drovers, westward bound, crowded the inns and taverns along the route. Huge Conestoga wagons hauled produce from frontier farms to the East Coast, returning with staples such as coffee and sugar for the western settlements. Thousands moved west in covered wagons and stagecoaches traveled the road keeping to regular schedules.

The road also featured many triumphs of engineering. Dunlap’s Creek Bridge in Brownsville, Pa., completed in 1838, was the first cast-iron bridge in the U.S. and the first to be built with standardized manufactured parts. It’s still standing today and, well, let’s just say they don’t build ’em like that anymore. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, spanning the Ohio River, was the longest in the world when it was built. It too still stands, albeit only for pedestrians and cyclists.

Remember that all of this is before the automobile. As railroads began to develop, trains took precedence in the minds of policy-makers and the public alike. They were much faster and more comfortable than horse-drawn vehicles on mostly dirt roads. As roads fell to the wayside of policy-makers’ attention, their oversight was shifted to a different part of government. The federal Office of Road Inquiry, established in 1893, was housed in the Department of Agriculture. As the word “inquiry” suggests, the office’s role was advisory. In 1905, it became the Office of Public Roads, and was established at the same time as the Forest Service. It was actually from the Forest Service that the first sustained revenue source for federal roads was created. As the federal government acquired more land for national parks and forests, roads were needed to connect the wilderness with more-developed areas. The agency’s name changed to reflect that in 1915 as it became the Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering.

By the time the automobile came to market, the government had not yet come around to seeing the widespread commercial applications of the new technology — as is typical with government and new technology. The Office of Public Roads and Rural Engineering became the Bureau of Public Roads in 1918 and remained housed in the Department of Agriculture all the way until 1939. Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act in 1916, the first program that provided federal aid to state agencies for highway construction. Two interest groups supported road construction: farmers and motorists. The farmers wanted high-quality local roads from agricultural areas to towns so they could bring their crops and animals to market. The new class of motorists wanted interstate highways so they wouldn’t have to use the dreadful network of private auto trails that crisscrossed America’s open spaces at that time. As the Federal Highway Administration’s Richard Weingroff puts it, “Any long trip by automobile required not only time, patience, and ingenuity, but tire-patching equipment, tools, spare parts, and emergency food and fuel.” The compromise between the farmers and the motorists resulted in a relatively small federal aid bill, and the start of American involvement in World War I the following year took people’s attention away from domestic concerns.

The 1916 act was more important because it was the first time the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) was involved in major legislation. Founded in 1914, the AASHO is a nongovernmental organization of state-level transportation officials that sets standards for American highways. The federal government’s slowness to recognize the benefits of highway development was probably a blessing. By not showing much interest right away, state government officials took the lead, and heavy-handed federal regulations stayed at bay. To this day, the AASHO, now known as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO, sets the standards for highways. Voting membership is only for each state’s department of transportation, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The federal Department of Transportation is only a nonvoting member. Other countries’ transportation departments are also nonvoting members. The AASHTO model is the smarter way to regulate. Instead of top-down federal regulation, it’s a nongovernmental organization that brings together the local knowledge of many different experts from each state and other countries and leaves final decision-making power in the hands of the states.

In 1926 the U.S. Numbered Highway System — the white-shield U.S. routes we still have today — was established. Until this time, the auto trails had names, not numbers. The AASHO devised a standard numbering system and mapped out a network of transcontinental highways for the first time. Highway numbers ending in 0 would be east–west transcontinental routes, and highway numbers ending in 1 would be north–south. Many routes replaced auto trails, and state governments got to work resurfacing the routes to better quality. They also adopted the same signage formats so that motorists were all on the same page no matter what state they were driving through.

The debates on the AASHO’s plan were subject to much bickering and regionalism, in the most American ways. Proponents of the Lincoln Highway, one of the most prominent auto trails, were aghast that “a memorial to the martyred Lincoln” would be “known by the grace of God and the authority of the Government of the United States as Federal Route 1, Federal Route 30, Federal Route 30N, Federal Route 30S, Federal Route 530, Federal Route 40 and Federal Route 50.” The governor of Kentucky, William Fields, was beside himself:

I invite the scrutiny of every governor and every member of Congress to the U.S. Highway map drawn up by the federal bureau of highways working under the Federal Department of Agriculture. Chicago influence is written all over the map. All east and west traffic is routed north of the Ohio. I particularly object to the obliteration of my idol, my dream, the Midland Trail, running from Ashland to Lexington and to Louisville. I have worked hard for this great road. The north and south roads too are guaged [sic] for Chicago benefit and that of the northwest alone. The east, I am sure, will join in with me in my protest, likewise the south.

All told, it took the AAHSO a year and a half to iron out the details, and not everyone was happy with the result. E. W. James of the Bureau of Public Roads advocated adoption of the plan in less than enthusiastic terms:

I urge the immediate adoption of the system as now laid out. It is not perfect. After 18 months almost continuous experience with the work I am convinced that to leave the case for further consideration will not improve it. So far as it contains errors of arrangement or selection, the worst ones are due to efforts to meet narrow local viewpoints, and this condition has become more and more pronounced as the requests for changes have come from the States. The Joint Board started out with a broad general conception of the country as a whole and the nationwide significance of a great system of routes.

Any decision of this scale is going to leave some groups unhappy. But with hindsight, the concerns seem quaint and the benefits seem inarguable. An AAHSO report in 1927 said:

Probably there is no single item which shows the value of federal and state co-operation more than the work of the officials of the state highway department and the Bureau of Public Roads in the selection of a limited system of roads to receive national numbers, so that people may travel across the continent following the same number.

Come 1939, the New Deal was in full swing, and Franklin Roosevelt oversaw a massive reorganization of the federal bureaucracy. The Bureau of Public Roads finally left the Department of Agriculture and was renamed the Public Roads Administration. Highway construction was seen, much like everything else, as an opportunity for make-work jobs. The Public Roads Administration became part of the Federal Works Agency. In the post-war environment, when some of the more-excessive parts of the New Deal were scaled back, the Federal Works Agency was disbanded and the Public Roads Administration became the Bureau of Public Roads again in 1949, this time housed in the Department of Commerce. What began at the Founding as concern for mail carriage and then morphed into an agricultural and forestry project had finally arrived at what Madison said in Federalist No. 42: something which “tends to facilitate the intercourse between the States.” Highways were now about commerce.

One might expect that the Eisenhower administration, in spearheading the Interstate Highway System, would have picked up there and made the case to Congress in commercial terms. But instead it focused on defense applications. The full name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and Eisenhower was famously inspired by the German Autobahn system he saw while serving in World War II.

The Interstate system would be the most centralized and expensive federal highway construction project yet, but it still left a lot to the states. Every Interstate was constructed and is owned by the government of the state through which it runs. Many parts of the Interstate system, like the New Jersey Turnpike, New York State Thruway, Pennsylvania Turnpike, Ohio Turnpike, Indiana Toll Road, and Kansas Turnpike, were already existing state highways that were re-signed. Many of the routing decisions were already made by the AAHSO plan from the ’20s since many Interstates run parallel or nearly parallel to existing U.S. Routes (I-70 over U.S. 40 or I-95 over U.S. 1, for example).

The federal government funded 90 percent of construction costs, and with federal money comes federal control. But the AAHSTO sets the standards for Interstates just as they do for U.S. routes. Best practices from the states inform the standards for the country. And states are free to do things such as privatize their highways, as Governor Mitch Daniels did with the Indiana Toll Road. As vessels of interstate commerce, the Interstate system has a compelling case for federal involvement. The advantages of the Interstates were better standardization, higher speeds, wider roads, and no at-grade intersections. The U.S. Numbered Highway System made cross-country car travel feasible. The Interstate Highway System made it reasonable.

The construction of our NHS was not a story of central planners who thought they knew best for the entire country. Really, Congress’s 1995 designation of a National Highway System was retconning thousands of different projects carried out by different actors (plenty of whom were private) over decades into some kind of grand plan. There wasn’t a grand plan, and overall, the construction of our NHS was done in accordance with our principles of limited government and federalism, or at least more so than other federal projects. When the federal government has overstepped, the people and states have pushed back. There were freeway revolts all over the country during the ’60s and ’70s, and federally planned highways were often canceled. Even in the 1995 designation act, Congress repealed all federal speed limit controls.

One of the best parts of our highways is that the government left the amenities to the free market. It was alongside the highways that the affordable American business hotel became possible. The countless gas stations and convenience stores at every Interstate exit mean you hardly have to plan where you’ll stop to refill your gas tank or stomach on a long drive cross country. Even the purely fun roadside attractions represent the spirit of a free people. Consider the world’s largest penny off of U.S. Route 51 in Woodruff, Wisc. In 1953, Woodruff needed a hospital but couldn’t find the money to build it. A local teacher came up with the idea of collecting one million of something as a class activity. Kate Pelham Newcomb, a local doctor, took that idea and turned it into a fundraiser for the local hospital, the Million Penny Parade. Through students sending hundreds of letters and some national media exposure, they collected $105,000 and finished the hospital. The world’s largest penny was built to commemorate their success.

If we’re going to have a government that takes a sizable chunk of our money every year — and, with apologies to the anarchists, socialists, and anarcho-socialists, we always will — then one of the least offensive things it could spend it on is a National Highway System that makes every corner of our country more accessible. The highways’ normal operating hours are 24/7, and nobody has to know you’re on them if you don’t tell them (which is why self-driving cars and their necessary tracking pose a potential threat to liberty). Our NHS makes us harder to control.

According to the 2019 American Community Survey, 91.4 percent of Americans have at least one vehicle available to them. Unlike the German Autobahn system, which features many sections that are genuinely difficult to drive, our highway system was designed for the ordinary person to use every day. Whether it was under the auspices of the Post Office, the farming industry, the national parks, facilitating interstate commerce, or national defense, the end result is a remarkable feat of engineering. In 3,000 years, archaeologists will look back on American civilization and be impressed by the road network the U.S. built. Given the choice between the Brits’ NHS and our NHS, ours wins every time.

All right, now I’m going to roll down the windows, turn on the radio, and go for a drive.


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