Investing in the Infrastructure of the Future

Dhanush Ekollu

October 7, 2022

Today an average American can wake up one morning in San Francisco, and with enough money for gas and a car (and the time and will to do it), make a spontaneous trip to New York. Over 2400 miles separate New York from San Francisco. Along the way, there are obstacles that most modern Americans don’t even have to pay attention to – mighty mountain ranges such as the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, barren deserts stretching for hundreds of miles, and great plains as far as the eye can see. Today, this gargantuan road trip crossing 8 unique biomes can be completed in 48 hours by car.

Most people take this system and its comfort for granted. The Interstate Highway System – the $114 Billion (half a trillion inflation-adjusted), almost 50000-mile highway system, remains unparalleled for any other country the size of the United States. Why did the US invest in such a big undertaking?

Like most American megaprojects, it started due to military and defense reasons. In 1919, then Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was assigned to a transcontinental army convoy from DC to San Francisco. The convoy had an average speed of 5 miles per hour, took 62 days, and was generally hell. He described the western roads as a “succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes”, realizing the United States was in dire need of an improved road system for better troop mobility and the safe movement of Americans across the nation.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt drew the following hand-drawn map, beginning the planning for today’s Interstate Highway System:

It was when Dwight D. Eisenhower became President is when the Interstate Highway System took off, however. After his treacherous cross-country trip, he was a staunch advocate for this system and envisioned smooth, safe, and fast roads connecting the American people and giving us an upper hand during wartime. In 1956, the first roads began to be paved.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s map:

While the project was initially planned for $100 billion and 10 years, it ended up being finished only in 1992 – 36 years later – at a total cost of $114 billion. Regardless, to this date, it’s arguably one of America’s best investments in its future. Due to the highway system, the cost of shipping fell significantly, and tourism increased dramatically. This system fuels the economy of many southern states and states like Oregon which would’ve been too far from major city centers or roads otherwise to develop and import/export goods. 

Most importantly, it allows for the freedom that millions of Americans have today – to be able to travel at a moment’s notice, with barely any restrictions, across the country. To safely view America’s vast plethora of geographic wonders and National Parks. To be able to connect to far-away relatives with unprecedented ease. The Interstate Highway System united America.

On November 5th, 2021, a major infrastructure bill was passed 228–206 by the House, and ten days later was signed into law by President Biden. While there was bipartisan support for the bill, it is still stunning that there were 206 representatives who voted against the bill. They (and the pundits critical of the law) point to the huge cost tag and question the need for such an investment when there are more “pressing” problems in the country. The interstate highway system is all we need to look to, to convince ourselves of the value of investing in the future infrastructure of our country.

The Interstate Highway System as of today: