America Is Investing in Roads Again. Will We Get It Right?

The Davison in Detroit was one of the first urban freeways when it opened in 1942. Now some cities—even Detroit—are closing highways. Courtesy Wayne State University

This article first appeared in the May/June issue Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Join the club to receive our award-winning magazine, and as part of the first-ever HDC Days from June 21 to June 23, Hagerty Drivers Club members will be eligible for some amazing deals, cool contests, and epic events and experiences. Not an HDC member? Sign up today!

With apologies to the time-traveling Doc Brown, it’s certain that wherever we’re going, we will indeed need roads. To that end, Congress has recently passed massive infrastructure bills—2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act—with billions for our beleaguered road network.

To understand the aim and potential impact of these efforts, we must travel, Marty McFly–style, to the last time the federal government took such a big swing at improving infrastructure. In the early 1950s, the United States had more automakers but fewer cars. Some 30 percent of Americans, many of them living in overcrowded cities, didn’t own one at all. Even auto factories tended to rely on trains to deliver parts and workers. Oh, and our roads? Generally awful—narrow, hazardous, and slow to travel along.

The last point wasn’t lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had won World War II thanks in large part to the Army’s ability to move lots of materiel around Europe. So, with his encouragement, Congress in 1956 passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. It was a staggering investment at nearly $25 billion (about $290 billion in 2024 dollars). Clifford W. Enfield, general counsel for the Bureau of Public Roads, described the bill as “America’s new design for living,” and declared it would “dwarf any prior peacetime endeavors of mankind.”

John C Lodge Expressway Detroit Michigan 1950s
John C. Lodge Expressway [M-10] from Seldon pedestrian bridge, south & north.Michigan State Highway Department

Bureaucrats love to exaggerate the importance of their projects, but Enfield was right. The highway system revolutionized every aspect of American life, from where we live to race relations to how we shop. The changes pervaded the automobile itself. Stretches of wide, straight interstate encouraged bigger, more powerful cars. Just as important, the new infrastructure enabled companies like GM to leave cramped city factories for massive single-floor assembly lines supplied mainly by highways. Smaller competitors like Packard, who couldn’t swing such investments, eventually went out of business.

Today, more than 90 percent of households have at least one car, according to U.S. census data. Almost all those cars are equipped with assistance technologies that proliferated in the 1950s such as automatic transmissions and power steering. And the so-called design for living was (and is) broadly popular, what with its idyll of a white picket fence in the suburbs. Yet already by the 1960s the side effects—smog, impoverished city neighborhoods, increased congestion—were becoming apparent. Among the early naysayers were car magazines; a 1961 Road & Track cover story declared highways “our enemy.”

Responsibility for fixing these ills was largely placed on cars themselves. Too much pollution? Pass emissions standards. Too many people dying in accidents? Mandate safety equipment. This was politically convenient, as appetite for massive government investments faded. There was also the perception—partially true—that cars could be updated faster than roads.

“It sounded appealing because they didn’t have to invest in infrastructure—the car is going to figure it out on its own,” said Gabor Orosz, a University of Michigan mechanical engineering professor who focuses on automated vehicles and traffic flow.

In recent years, though, there’s been renewed awareness of the role infrastructure plays. For this, we can partially thank the continued struggles of autonomous cars. “It turns out there are many scenarios where, if you have to solve the problem with onboard sensors, it’s going to be very expensive,” said Orosz.

Highways birds eye view Phoenix AZ
Unsplash/Jared Murray

With all this context, it’s possible to travel back to the future and understand the latest federal efforts as overdue attempts to burnish what the original highway act got right, and fix what it got wrong. There’s a lot of money for roads: more than $100 billion for maintenance, with an additional $2 billion toward low-carbon construction materials. Yet there are billions more for alternatives to roads—namely rail—as well as funding for localities to decommission highways and build more walkable neighborhoods. Even Detroit, the Motor City, is taking part, with plans to shrink a downtown freeway into a surface street and proposals for new light rail.

Exactly how these investments will pan out is tough to predict, but here’s one hopeful guess: Smarter infrastructure might just help save driving—at least, the sort we care about. A future in which more commuters take light rail, for instance, could be one in which automakers face less pressure to sell EVs and in which fewer people come to connote “driving” with “morning traffic.” In short, we’ll have roads, but perhaps fewer and better ones.


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    No. We won’t. In my area, the idiots destroyed hundreds of trees and a hillside for a white elephant roll road to connect two roads that already meet elsewhere. Also linking up with another roll road that few people use. The Mon-Fayette Expressway. Aka The Non-Taken Waste.

    While this is a legitimate question to ask the answer is far too complex to resolve in a few words and easy decisions.- ” Why don’t they just do this!? ” – Because it’s not as simple as you think and you’re only seeing it from the perspective of what will make your life easier. A friend and I would go camping at his property out in the sticks. The new highway knocked over an hour off our considerable travel time. But being that the local town was now only an exit it soon dried up. Lots of ‘ For Sale or Lease Signs ‘. Even the local couple who sold garden fresh vegetables to supplement their income found it was not worth their time. I miss those just picked leafy greens. This is the price of progress but sometimes it’s too ill considered . After Sandy in Jersey everyone plastered their cars with ‘Jersey Strong’ and ‘Restore the Shore ‘ stickers but no one bothered to consider, even briefly and the opportunity was at hand if there was a better plan other than to replace what was there as quickly as possible. So they kept putting things up and then tearing back down at a mind numbing rate. Short sided thinking. So while for instance people may think the European model of rail service will not work here, our commercial rail service is one of the best, in not the best in the world but that is rarely if ever mentioned. That means we already have a really good start on how to do it. All too obviously some things will be done right and others wrong, that seems to go without saying.

    Exactly. Comments like ‘rail won’t work here because the country is too big’ are missing the big picture. A transportation system should be balanced. If you are traveling from Chicago to LA, rail is likely not the answer, but then, for most people today, neither is driving. But if you are going between Chicago and Milwaukee or Chicago and Minneapolis, or San Diego to LA, then rail is the best option. No your car is not there when you arrive but you save yourself the drive and stress and typically get there faster than driving, and that is before higher speed options come on like as in Florida. So an effective system needs air, rail, and roads. In cities, getting commuters out of cars and off freeways is essential, freeing up the roads for journeys that cannot be made on local light rail or similar public transport. So keep an open mind and look wider.

    Look this agenda driven non sense will make things worse. As they say the scariest words you will ever hear is we are from the government and we are here to help.

    I have cities here in Ohio removing lanes to drive. They are even removing a freeway because it was termed racist? Yes they tore down a very depressed neighborhood with most moving to better areas.

    They put in bike lanes no one use due to cold weather and crime.

    The real issue has been lowest bidders. They build inferior roads and they fall apparat a year after completed.

    They are installing roundabouts many cannot use properly as well zippers that fail to work due to human nature.

    The busses ride around with few on them and rail here in the mid west no one will use as the out of town interstates are faster and leave you with a car once you hit another town.

    If you want to fix the roads use the best companies and while they may cost more they will last longer. Just removing the holes in the streets would do much.

    We are not Europe. Many come from Europe and are over whelmed how big America really is. They understand why rail will not work. They get why we have large vehicles as we have the space.

    We are not one world. Each and every part of the world has its own set of needs or abilities that don’t translate to other parts.

    I drove a Tesla yesterday with Auto Pilot. Yes it got me where I am going but it did not keep with traffic. I was a rolling road block for others driving at their own pace.

    Even the United States has different needs depending where you live.

    Fear of change is failure to improve. The problem is not change itself, the problem is understanding what needs changing and what does not. Well-considered and well-executed changes will always be the best answer. That’s called improvement. When it’s perfected, it won’t need changing.

    My grand pappy said thar you can fool all of the people sone times and most of the people all the time. He said that is good odds.

    The real problem is while some change is good but sone change is bad.

    When it comes to the Government too often the change is either dishonest or political and that is not good. They are to serve the people and too often they are self serving.

    My grand pappy said thar you can fool all of the people some times and most of the people all the time. He said that is good odds.

    The real problem is while some change is good but some change is bad.

    When it comes to the Government too often the change is either dishonest or political and that is not good. They are to serve the people and too often they are self serving.

    Look, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York, Washington, etc are physically more like Europe than they are like the Midwest, and get more that way with every passing year. The coasts need real European-style passenger rail service commensurate with their density. The Midwest … probably not as much — agreed. Since at least a third of the continent’s population lives on the two coasts, rail is not alt all irrelevant or inappropriate. It’s just not relevant to the aptly, if rather cruelly, named ‘flyover country’ in between.

    ( ps ) While I’m not familiar with Detroits plans to add new rail service as a fairly recent example Moynihan Train Hall ( a long overdue and welcomed extension to Penn Station ) is a great example of giving a new lease on life to an old landmark. The Farley Building, an old post office and an impressive structure, no longer had use for all its space. While the ‘old’ Penn Station, fortunately just across the street, could barely handle the over 600.000 passengers a day that used it. The results a win win..

    I doubt there’s as much “investment in roads” as there is in social re-engineering, expanding and funding bureaucracy, and buying union votes. And some of the design work is ill-considered. One example: crosswalks just past roundabouts, where a pedestrian is hard to see: people are watching the other cars, and any car ahead brings everything to a sudden halt stopping for them, creating havoc & collisions.

    Agreed. This is the biggest payday for votes that there has ever been. And has played a large part in increasing and maintaining inflation.

    Like wise with the Goodyear Wingfoot express that would take Route 30 the Lincoln Highway to San Fran from Akron. They were out to prove coast to coast trucking with pneumatic tires was possible.

    Goodyear ran routes to Boston then to the west coast in trucks and then advanced to the first tandem axle truck ever used. Goodyear built them special. They even had trailers.

    Often the bridges were out and many challenges were on the route.

    My great Uncle worked under the man who designed the first Tandem Axles and went on for a long career at GMC.

    The trucks at Goodyear were the Wingfoot express trucks. But this was the first real private effort to bring coast to coast highways and trucking to the world.

    Goodyear still has a 100 plus year old Packard that was restored to the Wingfoot plans of their early trucks. It is still driving and is seen at events in the Akron area. It is stored with blimp at the base near Akron.

    Let’s hope so. Maryland roads have torn apart our 2020 Connect. This will make the 3rd time we’ve had to replace the frotn struts in less than 4 years. Not to mention junk on these roads have left our wheels battle scared.

    I have my doubts. We repave roads that don’t need it and ignore roads and bridges that do need it. Government likes it’s wasteful spending naming bills for things that only 10% if we are lucky will actually touch while the rest goes to various forms of pork.

    We just need smarter people in charge, and that may be a hopeless wish. My county is doing well financially, but they keep building more apartments on already overcrowded streets. They get more tax money that way, but driving is a chore and wasteful of fuel and time. They tossed in some inter-county busses that ride around empty or nearly so, a few minivans could do the job much better.

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