Bookends on the highway era: A view at the start and a look back from today

Fortune magazine has republished a September 1958 article that takes stock of the Interstate construction boom, just then beginning. It’s a thorough and surprisingly prescient take, and one that reminds us that our highway system didn’t just happen by some invisible hand of the market or gradual evolution of policy. It was a planned revolution, a break from the past. As with most revolutions, it created outcomes that were sometimes anticipated and beneficial, and sometimes not.

Support for the program, Fortune said, was nearly universal:

Like better schools, it is regarded as a thoroughly good, nonpolitical program that everybody will support and that will clear up this traffic mess once and for all, it is ardently hoped.

Yet there were already signs of some problems. Travel demand and costs were higher than anticipated, and even in 1958 the Highway Trust Fund was in need of shoring up. The highway building boom was diverting resources from other infrastructure, including local roads and transit. And it was remaking metro areas in disconcerting ways:

Great channels, 300 feet wide, must be cleared to accommodate four and six-lane roadbeds and broad median strips. Yawning gaps the size of small villages will be torn to make way for interchanges. Farms will be split, householders uprooted, recreation land slashed. And in built-up areas, the new roads will divide neighborhoods, disturb street arrangements, cut through residential blocks, stores, and office buildings.

Fortune concludes by wondering aloud whether all this was too expensive and too radical a change, one that would create a cycle of more traffic and more construction:

The men who are directing the present program are determined not to be caught short. They will keep revising their estimates of capacity needed, adding more lanes and ramps and feeder roads. The pursuit of adequacy will be costly. There are bound to be further upward revisions of the program’s total cost. And the nation is dreading spending $2 billion a year on road maintenance alone.

Someday, perhaps just about the time this program is completed, Americans may draw a breath and reflect whether it is worthwhile to expend so much national energy on this kind of transportation.

In a recent Economist blog post, correspondent R.A. draws a breath and reflects on the economic effect of the highway revolution, and the rail revolution before it. Common wisdom is that these paradigm shifts created huge economic benefits by reducing shipping costs and opening new areas to settlement and agricultural production.

R.A. isn’t so sure. Had the nation not invested heavily in rail and then highways, the economy would have organized around other means of exchange. “In the end,” he writes, citing economist Robert Fogel, “Mr Fogel estimates that ‘the social saving attributable to the railroad in the interregional transportation of agricultural products was about 1% of national income.’” That’s not nothing, but it’s not revolutionary either.

While declaring himself “someone who takes the need for new infrastructure seriously,” R.A. concludes that

Highways obviously had a large effect as an idea, and they made direct contributions to the economy as a construction enterprise, but the net addition to growth through trade is uncertain, and probably much smaller than most people assume.