Terrible roads – El Financiero

Since the United States became an independent nation, almost two and a half centuries ago, there have been doubts about the powers of the federal government to carry out public works and, in particular, roads. The original colonies had laid out their paths and took good care of them. George Washington, the first president, tried to convince the new states of the need for a highway network and, without much support, allocated a budget for it.

The states and counties did not give in and each one managed as best they could. Although they occasionally agreed to carry out necessary works, such as large canals, on the issue of roads they maintained their foolishness, even though they recognized that traveling between one state and another involved taking useless detours.

Fortunately, when the giant westward expansion occurred, they decided to divide the new territories into almost perfect square lots. In this way, the roads were made from north to south and from east to west.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a young soldier, World War I ended and many battalions were demobilized or set to build more decent barracks. His job was to take a convoy of 79 vehicles from Washington to San Francisco.

The 3,200 kilometer journey took them weeks because they went from paved roads to cobbled or dirt roads. There were mudholes in which they got stuck, rivers that were crossed through fords and very narrow or steep sections. Most of the bridges that crossed them were very low, forcing trucks to go off the road in order to move forward.

Eisenhower rose through the ranks and became commander in chief of the Allied armies in World War II. During his stay in Germany he was able to appreciate its magnificent network of highways with high specifications.

Returning to his homeland, with great prestige for having led his troops to victory, he became president. In 1956 he promoted the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

He presented it as a strategic priority. During the war, when Japan became a threat, it was very difficult to bring supplies to the Pacific coast. It was also required because the Soviet Union already had nuclear weapons and, in simulated attacks, it took a long time to evacuate the cities. Additionally, throughout the system there are straight sections of reinforced concrete that can be used as landing strips.

The federal government had the resources to do it, and states and counties, already suffering from the increase in automobiles, finally agreed.

New challenges

To finance the 45,000-mile network (which was completed until the early 1990s), a trust fund was created, fueled 84% by a gasoline tax and 14% by a levy on heavy trucks. Unlike other similar funds (such as airports), in this one the operation and maintenance is not left to the states. In subsequent governments it was decided that public transportation in cities and road safety would also be paid from there.

With a growing number of cars and heavier trucks deteriorating the roads, since 2001 that fund has been insufficient to extend the network or expand its capacity. It is not even enough to rebuild thousands of bridges or provide adequate maintenance. Every year Congress must transfer money from the general fund to do what is most urgent.

The problem begins because the gasoline tax (25 cents per gallon) has not increased since 1993 and neither presidents nor Congress dare to raise it.

Furthermore, construction costs in the United States are very high, compared to those in Europe and, above all, those in Asia. Land, steel and other construction materials, machinery and equipment, and, of course, labor cost more. Too many workers are used and work is done very inefficiently and slowly.

The sector is so regulated that obtaining a permit to build a new ten-kilometer lane takes, on average, seven years. Redundant procedures have to be carried out in dozens of agencies.

Extra costs are incurred to cover imagined externalities, such as certain effects on communities. By law, contracts must be given to small or minority companies, so coordinating their participation is extremely complicated.

The result is that today the highway network is a disgrace.