Hitting the roads
For much of the last hundred years, the term “public works” – at least in North America – has been virtually synonymous with the word “highway.” In an American culture that reveres private enterprise, highway construction and maintenance has been a singularly public responsibility.
At the dawn of the 20th century, wagon trails, a quasi-network of dirt roads for horses and horse-drawn wagons, constituted the nation’s very primitive highway system. In fact, the National Old Trails Association was formed to preserve and improve the Old Cumberland Road, which begins in Maryland, and the Old Santa Fe Trail, which runs west from Kansas City, Mo., as transcontinental routes.
Those trails, some of which were scenic and some that existed only to provide salaries for their organizers, became the roads for tourist traffic. They eventually were replaced by U.S. numbered routes, and the trail associations went out of business.
The better rural roads of the early 19th century were composed of waterbound macadam, 12 to 15 feet wide – a width that was adequate for two loaded wagons to pass each other. Except to pass, all traffic traveled in the middle of the road. In addition to macadam, broken stone and gravel, road surface materials included brick, asphalt, wooden planks, sand-clay and granite blocks. Except for the more heavily traveled trunk routes, wagon roads outside cities usually were not surfaced. Mud prevailed.
The early roads were built by hand with pick and shovel and by horse-drawn slips and scrapers. Maintenance involved an early form of public-private cooperation in which rural towns held weekend road repair parties. Farmers could be relieved of part of their taxes if they graded the section of road in front of their farms. It also was not uncommon to find prison chain gangs, supervised by a sheriff carrying a shotgun, building or repairing roads.
However, farmers and prisoners could not do the same job as skilled engineers or construction workers. Consequently, under the states’ Object Lesson Roads program, engineers in the government’s Office of Public Roads (OPR) began to teach the nation’s roadbuilders how to build and maintain good roads. The OPR also studied new road materials and construction methods.
In the years leading up to World War I, federal dollars for roads began to flow. In 1912, Congress authorized funds for the improvement of post roads to be used for rebuilding and upgrading rural mail delivery. Approximately $1.8 million was spent constructing 425 miles of roads.
1916 Federal Aid Road Act
It was not until 1916, however, that the federal government got serious about road improvements. The first major federal road program, the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act, authorized $75 million over five years for road improvements. In the 1921 Federal Aid Highway Act, Congress funded roads with an average of $75 million per year, and, by the end of the decade, the federal Bureau of Public Works would spend $750 million on building and maintaining roads.
By 1920, many state highway departments were realizing the design deficiencies of wagon roads. The increase in auto traffic damaged macadam and gravel roads, leading to experiments with tar and bituminous material. In the ’20s and ’30s, to meet the demands of automobiles, highway departments began experimenting with changing road designs on primary and secondary roads as well as on city streets. The design of those highways was the responsibility of the engineering staffs of cities, counties and states.
With the growth of automobile traffic, roads throughout the United States needed rapid and continuous repair, and designs were constantly revised to accommodate the traffic. For example, by 1935, Pennsylvania’s main roads were inadequate for travel. The principal east-west highway, Route 30 (formerly Lincoln Highway) was too narrow and often congested, so officials began looking at a major reconstruction. However, financing and building a high-quality road of that length over such rugged, challenging terrain as that of the Pennsylvania countryside had never been attempted. An answer to the financing problem was found in user fees in the form of tolls. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940 and grossed $2.6 million in its first 11 months of operation. Other eastern states soon began building their own toll highways.
In 1949, New Jersey created a Turnpike Authority to investigate the feasibility of building a toll road between the George Washington Bridge and the Delaware River. The New Jersey Turnpike opened in 1952, and, by 1953 was returning six times its operating expenses (with net operating revenues of $18.2 million a year). It has continued to be successful; the traffic load estimated for 1975 was actually reached during 1954.
World War II – The Strategic Highway Network
The highway era that began in the ’20s and continued through the Great Depression came to an end with World War II. The Federal Highway Act of 1940 provided that previously authorized federal-aid highway funds could be used to pay for preliminary engineering and for supervising construction of projects essential to national defense. In 1941, 78,000 miles of highway were designated as the strategic network.
During the war, men and women were hired for defense jobs, and traffic on roads near the war plants grew. Still, minimal attention was paid to construction and maintenance of roads. But, by the mid-1940s, highway officials realized that highway planning and design would be critical in the post-war years.
When the war ended, highway agencies were faced with the challenge of modernizing the nation’s roads. The automobile boom and the demand for greater speed with safety led to a need for controlled access highways. As more Americans became mobile, traffic increased, leaving travelers to log billion of miles a year on inferior roads.
Engineering firms were retained to de velop plans and construction drawings for a wide range of improvements. Work resumed on scenic roads in national forests and on state-sponsored scenic highway programs such as those planned in California.
By the late 1940s, Americans were beginning to question the way their roads were being built. In 1950, the Federal Aid Highway Act required state highway departments to conduct public hearings for all highway projects bypassing cities and towns. Congress also required that planners consider the social and environmental effects of their highways, as well as “the goals and objectives of such urban planning as have been promulgated by the community.”
In 1958, the Federal Aid Highway Act applied public hearing requirements to interstate projects. In the ’60s, communities began to organize in opposition to highway construction. The major concerns were balancing transportation with other community needs – land preservation and quality-of-life issues – plus the need for local involvement in highway location and design. Continuing neighborhood protests resulted in passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which, among other things, required that an environmental impact study be completed before federal funds could be spent on any project.
Few roads reflect that environmental emphasis like I-70 through Glenwood Canyon, Colo. Completed in 1992, the environmentally sensitive project required highway designs that complemented the natural beauty of the canyon and that minimized impact on the existing environment.
The four-lane highway has a 50-mph design speed, 12-foot lanes, 3- to 5-foot inside shoulders and 6- to 8-foot outside shoulders. To limit the road’s environmental impact, the design speed and shoulder widths were exempted from interstate standards. Thomas Larson, former head of the Federal Highway Administration, described the 13-mile segment as “a world-class piece of environmentally sensitive engineering” and “a scenic byway that is one of the wonders of the interstate system.”
Creating the interstates
In the early years of the nation’s interstate construction, however, environmental considerations took a back seat to defense concerns. For highway advocates, the Eisenhower presidency was a fortuitous convergence of history and politics.
As a young officer during World War I, Eisenhower was alarmed by the amount of time required to move materiel and troops across the United States. When he became president, he pushed for construction of a defense highway network that would permit military convoys to move rapidly and efficiently. On June 29, 1956, he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, creating the largest public works program in the nation’s history.
Time and technology have long since relegated the interstate system’s defense role to the history books. Still, few, if any, public works programs have had a greater impact on the life of the nation. President Eisenhower’s highway program stimulated engineering work not only in the transportation field, but in every aspect of the nation’s economy. In honor of his contributions, the interstate system now bears his name.
But if building the nation’s highway system was a watershed event in American history, maintaining it was a constant challenge. By the ’70s, many of the roads comprising the system were approaching the end of their design lives and needed further repair. The 3R Program was authorized by Congress in 1976 to resurface, restore and rehabilitate work on those portions of the interstate that were at least five years old. In 1982, President Reagan signed legislation that increased federal spending for highway construction and repair work, and, in 1987, Congress approved funds to complete the Interstate Highway System.
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) introduced a new surface transportation era – one in which advanced technology plays an integral role in operating and managing the existing highway system. ISTEA prompted many state highway departments to evolve into intermodal Departments of Transportation (DOTs).
ISTEA also encouraged the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which use advanced computer and communications capabilities to improve transportation efficiency and safety. ITS covers a wide range of activities including advanced traffic control systems, wide area travel information dissemination, electronic clearance of commercial vehicles (trucks) and priority systems for buses on city streets. An agency emphasizing ITS will focus on maximizing the safety and capacity of existing roadways and infrastructure by better facility use, rather than focusing on expansion or new construction.
Within the National ITS Architecture are “market packages” that address the specific user service requirements of various ITS stakeholders, including transportation characteristics, communication infrastructure and institutional issues. The market packages are grouped into seven functional areas: Advanced Traffic Management Systems, Advanced Public Transportation Systems, Advanced Traveler Information Systems, Commercial Vehicle Operations, Emergency Management, Advanced Vehicle Safety Systems and ITS Planning.
A wide variety of ITS projects are under way. They include everything from advanced traffic control (i.e., smart cars, real-time traffic algorithms, automated highway systems, etc.) to real-time monitoring of bus and commercial vehicle location by global positioning satellite technology and widespread dissemination of travel time and road condition information over the Internet (i.e., area congestion maps, interactive route programming, incident reports and construction reports).
San Joaquin: design-build
Even with ISTEA and the renewed emphasis on road building and repair, financing still is a complicated procedure. In the ’90s, agencies started to use different methods to finance, design and construct transportation projects. Passage of the National Highway System Designation Act in 1995 changed how states financed the highway system and other transportation infrastructure and opened the doors for planners to make better use of modern financing techniques.
In the next decade, almost half of U.S. highway construction will be done through the design-build project delivery approach, according to one industry magazine. In California, for example, the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road Project is financed with limited state highway funds (used for construction reimbursement only), development impact fees and $1.2 billion in nonrecourse project revenue bonds issued by the state Transportation Corridor Agencies. Tolls will pay off the bonds.
(The design-build process reduced overall construction time by at least four years because the designer and builder worked together as a team, eliminating the separate construction bidding process; allowing construction to proceed during the design phase; and making constructability reviews more efficient.)The San Joaquin Hills Corridor also features a tol l collection system that allows commuters to pass through toll booths without slowing. Commuters with a small, windshield-mounted transponder have their tolls automatically deducted from a prepaid account.
TEA-21, the progeny of ISTEA, continues the original legislation’s commitment to rebuilding the nation’s highway infrastructure by providing financial resources through the Highway Trust Fund. “This legislation means the transportation sector will continue to be the most stable part of the U.S. construction market well into the next century,” says Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders, Washington, D.C. “We’re looking at a 44 percent funding increase through 2003.”
While the funding levels contained in TEA-21 are good news, Ruane says the most important aspect of the bill is a landmark provision that changes the way highway and mass transit capital investment is treated in the federal budget. For the first time ever, TEA-21 guarantees that virtually all incoming gas taxes – more than $200 billion – are used exclusively to finance highway and transit improvements.
The new law also provides expanded authority to leverage public money to attract private funds to finance capital-intensive transportation infrastructure projects, according to Ruane.
Through a combination of loan guarantees, lines of credit and direct loans, the legislation, “makes available approximately $500 million in Highway Trust Fund revenue over six years to support credit assistance of up to about $10 billion,” Ruane says. “[That will] encourage public-private ventures in large projects with national benefits by reducing project costs and sharing risk between the public and private sectors.”
TEA-21 both reflects current thinking and helps shape future thought about transportation. The current thinking is very different from the philosophy that drove road building over most of the century. Until recently, there was no doubt that highways were the responsibility of government and that little should stand in the way of their construction. Now, however, the well of government money is no longer bottomless, and highways must compete for funding. Furthermore, a growing population and scarce land are frequently regarded as incompatible with unfettered highway growth.
TEA-21 recognizes that disconnection by encouraging more efficient use of highway capacity through ITS and encouraging complementary and even competitive forms of transportation. Technology, design-build and creative public-private financing – rather than mere taxpayer-financed pavement replacement – are the future.
Robert O’Neil is president of Parsons Transportation Group, Washington, D.C. The author is indebted to the Transportation Center Library at Northwestern University, Chicago.