Highway Construction in the U.S.: Costs, Benefits, Dependence

Article excerpt


Few people truly recognize the influence of modern transportation on society. In the United States, that includes the influence of highways that allow the citizenry to travel freely, the strength of the economy, and the country's national security. In ali cases, the geography of the United States influenced the evolution of transportation and transportation technology. The U.S. is the third largest country in the world and includes a vast area of land (Central Intelligence Agency, 2012a). In 2008, the U.S. had the most kilometers of roads in the world--6,506,204 kto--almost twice as many as China with the second most (Central Intelligence Agency, 2012b). The U.S. continues to construct highways because they are vital to the country's national security and economic growth. What are the costs of building, upgrading, and maintaining America's highways? What are the costs of not building and maintaining highways? How does the U.S. highway system compare to the highway systems of other countries? Why has the U.S. highway system evolved the way that it has?


In the North American British colonies, coastal cities grew large before inland settlements. They were located at shipping ports at the mouths of rivers and natural bay areas. To transport cargo and passengers inland, the rivers were the early highways. Many of the largest inland cities today were first established as stops en rivers where people could trade goods. Canals often paralleled and complemented river travel. Later, railroads would often follow rivers. Gradually, settlements and towns were established in remote inland locations away from navigable rivers and were connected by horse trails and rugged wagon roads.

The need for a well-developed highway in a given location evolves gradually over time. States and localities that plan well will predict and observe this evolution by creating and monitoring long-range growth plans, enabling them to upgrade and construct roads that help to meet their transportation needs. During the colonial period of the U.S., a horse path between two settlements would grow into a wagon road as the settlements grew into towns and cities. Between two towns, maintenance would have to be performed to keep the road open. In the early 1900s, as powered vehicles grew in popularity and as the communities grew even more, the dirt roadway would be graveled, and eventually paved. Over time, the trail grew into a two-lane paved highway.

In the last 100 years of the road's history, American society shifted from agrarian to industrial, with the rise of the second Industrial Revolution. Gradually over the last century, people who had worked on farms started commuting into towns to work in factories. Simultaneously, within the towns, with the growth in steam and electrical power, factories operated at full capacity. In the heart of towns, people who were content before the factories were built wanted to move to the outskirts of town to avoid living near the loud and smelly factories. At first, workers would ride trolleys into town. Later they would travel by car or bus to work. As people moved to the outskirts of town, suburban areas began to grow. The two-lane highway became important to three types of travelers; people traveling from one town to another, people traveling from the country into town to work, and people living in the suburban outskirts of town traveling in to work. Straightened, paved, two-lane roads became congested and needed more lanes for traffic.


A modern roadway is constructed in five phases. The planning phase includes feasibility studies and technical and public input. The project development phase includes impact studies and location studies or scoping. The design phase includes the development of final highway design plans. The right-of-way acquisition phase includes the condemnation and purchasing of property, and during the construction phase, the highway is built (Federal Highway Administration, 2012a). …