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Interstate system still delivering after 50 years

In 1919, Dwight Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, was a participant in a pioneering event — the first cross-country truck convoy ever attempted. The trip was successful, but took months to complete and left Eisenhower determined that the U.S. desperately needed an interstate highway system.

After he was elected president, Eisenhower set out to develop such a system, born from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. In announcing his vision, Eisenhower touched on the need for such a system to strengthen national defenses, relieve traffic congestion, improve the safety of travelers among others. But, he also pointed out that such a system would aid in economic development.

This year, the Dwight David Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways turns 50 years old. To commemorate the event, a cross-country convoy retraced the route taken by Eisenhower back in 1919. The event was held June 19-26.

While the convoy did not cross Mississippi, Eisenhower’s vision and the huge asset the interstate system offers is readily apparent today in the Magnolia State. And, it only grows with time. Nationwide, the $130-billion system encompasses 47,000 miles, which is only 1.1% of the public road mileage. Yet, interstates carry 24% of all U.S. traffic.

Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) executive director Larry L. “Butch” Brown said, “The interstate system has long been considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. Most Americans today have little experience of what the world was like without an interstate highway system. But, even as we take it for granted, we fail to recognize that virtually all of our goods…move on the interstates en route to our homes.”

One person who knows firsthand how pioneering the interstate system was is Wayne Brown, Southern District transportation commissioner and chairman of the Mississippi Transportation Commission. He was working on a project to four-lane a portion of U.S. 49 in South Mississippi in the mid-1950s when a carload of highway officials pulled up. The officials showed him a plan for an intercoastal defense highway with a cloverleaf interchange at U.S. 49. Brown was “utterly amazed,” and had the privilege years later to work on Interstate 59. He said everyone knew the interstate system would be large and important, but how big and how critical was not as apparent then as it is now

“For the last 50 years, Mississippi’s Interstate Highway System has remained the most critical link on the state’s transportation network, saving Mississippi residents $5.6 billion annually — $1,927 per person in safety benefits, saved time, reduced fuel and lower consumer costs,” Brown said. Pointing to a report released by The Road Information Program, Brown added that the interstate system in Mississippi has saved much more than money. “‘Saving Lives, Time and Money, A Report of the Condition, Use and Future Needs of Mississippi’s Interstate Highway System’ estimates the additional safety features of the interstate highway system has saved approximately 3,000 lives in Mississippi since 1956.”

The U.S. interstate highway system introduced a new way of moving goods and people. But, it also had an impact on non-interstate roadbuilding projects in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important was the pay-as-you-go approach. This strategy made construction financially feasible, and is commonly used in funding highway construction today.

While celebrating interstates’ 50th birthday, departments of transportation are concerned about the cost of growing and maintaining the system, and a lot of that concern centers on funding. Mississippi receives a little more than 18¢ per gallon in fuel tax for highway maintenance and construction.

“That was great when gas was $1 per gallon (roughly 18%), but now that it reaching $3 a gallon, we’re only seeing about 6% off the dollar, and we’re expected to not only maintain what we have, but build more,” Wayne Brown said.

Current work on Mississippi’s interstates continues at a quick pace. MDOT is widening Interstate 10 from four to six lanes at a cost of $10 million per mile. And, the department has contracted more than $100 million to upgrade Interstate 55 north of Jackson over the past seven years, while over that same period contracted nearly $100 million on Interstate 20 in Hinds and Rankin counties.

Yet, the system is maturing as congestion and inefficiency takes its toll. Wayne Brown said there is a real need for connectivity to state ports and other challenges, and there is no funding in place to allow for future capacity. “Fifty years ago, we had a can-do attitude, and were excited about the possibility of an interstate highway system,” he said. “We’ve now slipped into a make-do attitude with highways nearing completion and congestion ever increasing.”

However, interstates continue to bring new ideas, and the future is exciting. A good example is intelligent transportation systems. In short, these systems allow the road and the vehicle to “talk,” offering increased safety and efficiency.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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