Interstate highways: Porky all the way!

When Dwight Eisenhower first tried to get congress to ok his interstate highway plan in 1955, it failed in the house of representatives with 292 ‘nay’s and just 123 ‘yea’s. The next year, the same congress passed an essentially identical bill 388 to 19. Nearly a hundred congressmen changed their votes. The difference? Pork.

In September 1955, the Bureau of Public Roads published the “Yellow Book”. It showed how interstate highways might go around and through 100 major metropolitan areas — essentially, it was a whole book full of earmarks. It didn’t hurt that the new bill raised the federal share of construction costs to 90%. Who could turn down practically free roads? Every congressman whose city showed up in the yellow book voted ‘aye’ except one. He didn’t get re-elected.

It took over a decade for reality to set in, as people came to realize that those neat black lines on the maps translated into huge, ugly, gridlocked walls of concrete — expensiv concrete. Congress proved to be a lot more interested in building freeways than in maintaining them, and states and cities were left to fund repairs as best they could.

Would the interstate highway system have been built without those earmarks? Maybe. Many states had already built turnpikes. The Pennsylvania turnpike, in existence since 1940, had wildly exceeded traffic expectations, and was already well on the way to paying for itself. So perhaps states would have built a national turnpike network on their own, without federal assistance and without broad taxation. But much of the midwest was and still is thinly populated, and the economics of turnpikes don’t add up quite as much as they do on the more densely settled coasts. Without that 90% bribe from the feds, there would probably be a lot fewer freeways in the middle of the country.

There would also be a lot fewer freeways crisscrossing the urban landscape. Big cities would, presumably, have built turnpikes, too. That would allow for the same scrutiny of ROI (return on investment) usually faced by mass transit. And, while it’s hard to be sure, it seems likely those expensive urban turnpikes would come up short in the comparison, and cities across the country would still have viable public transit systems. Maybe.

So the next time you find yourself on a freeway, thank pork. And when the road turns into a potholed, gridlocked mess, thank pork. And the next time you gas up your car, and find yourself gasping at the price, thank pork.

(Note: source for most of the facts in this essay is ‘Divided Highways’ by Tom Lewis)

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