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Rebuilding the ‘Free-ways’ Won’t Be Free

May 02, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

"First Free-way for Minnesota" said the headline in the December 1955 issue of the state Highway Department's house organ (its internal publication). Below was a drawing of a 5-mile stretch of four-lane on Austin's northern outskirts, the first installment in Minnesota's current total of 4,030 lane-miles of the National Interstate and Defense Highway system.

Construction began in 1957 amid official predictions that the entire network in Minnesota would be finished within 13 years for an estimated cost of up to $2 billion ($5.4 billion in 2011 dollars). It ended up taking more time and money, but all except a few segments in the Twin Cities area and Duluth were carrying traffic by 1980. With the opening of the eastern end of I-394 near today's Target Field in Minneapolis, the system was completed in 1992.

So that's one big government job out of the way, right?

Wrong. Like the Baby Boomers who were tots when the biggest infrastructure project in U.S. history commenced, our Interstate highways are showing their age. And like people, roads have a finite life span in the area of 70 years, although it can be decades less for those that have hard lives, worn out under constant heavy traffic. But even lightly-traveled rural Interstates eventually have to be torn up and rebuilt down to the deep roadbed.

Nationwide, cost estimates for this necessary commitment to asset preservation range to more than $3 trillion, if capacity improvements such as the multi-hundred-million-dollar Crosstown Commons and Unweave the Weave interchange reconstruction projects in the Twin Cities are included. Minnesota's share of that daunting figure would be about $60 billion, or four times our projected total state highway revenues over the next two decades.

"There is no conceivable way that existing federal fuel tax rates could pay for the reconstruction of our 47,000 [nationwide] miles of Interstates, let alone add needed capacity," Robert Poole, transportation fellow at the libertarian-conservative Reason Foundation, wrote recently.

In Minnesota, the Department of Transportation reports that just 360 lane-miles of Interstates have been fully rebuilt, mostly in the Twin Cities area. That leaves 91 percent of the job still to be done, before future generations presumably start re-rebuilding the first rebuilt stretches.

This is a huge challenge. It has prompted calls from conservative circles for privatizing highways or imposing tolls on existing "free-ways." Others have suggested that overbuilding of roads in general, not just Interstates, has put us in a fiscally unsustainable bind. In the Twin Cities, we have more road miles per capita than all but two other U.S. metros and more than twice as much as car culture's world capital, Los Angeles.

An even more contrarian view has come from the CEO of oil giant Hess Corp., John B. Hess. He said the nation should consider boosting the current 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax that supports highway building and maintenance to $1. Hess quickly added that this shouldn't happen "until the economy's growing and people are put back to work."

It's strangely encouraging that people in the "oil bidness" would urge taxing their own product—even in the indeterminate future—to head off a global energy crisis and steward a highway system that has been a major driver of our prosperity. Repeated studies have shown that the economic externalities of driving far outstrip the relatively low cost of fuel in this country, despite the recent spike in prices at the pump. This imbalance leads to chronic congestion, deteriorating highways and even collapsing bridges.

Demand for driving will persist regardless of the price we put on it. If we get all the prices right, however, we can afford an efficient, multimodal surface transportation system of trails, rails and motorways that can be kept in good repair. The status quo isn't up to that big job.

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