WHILE observing the 50th anniversary of one of the most important American accomplishments of 20th century — our nation's 46,800-mile interstate highway system — we must also look for ways to preserve and expand it.

Modeled after the German autobahn and initiated by a law President Eisenhower signed on June 29, 1956, our coast-to-coast network is the heart of our national transportation system, creating easier, more mobile lives for millions of people and facilitating a boom in commerce that has brought the world to our doorsteps.

"It reshaped the landscape of the United States, ... allowed for much more dispersion of population," Los Angeles-based planner Joel Kotkin told Erik N. Nelson, this newspaper's transportation reporter.

Yet, like much of California and our nation's post-World War II infrastructure that became the envy of the world, our interstates are falling apart faster than we can keep them together. We can't fix the problem with "another layer of asphalt," says William Buechner of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. "We have to start thinking about major reconstruction projects" and that "will be very expensive."

Our investment in urban interstates is $7.5 billion per year. Money comes from the Highway Trust Fund created in 1956. It uses federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel to help pay for road building and maintenance under a formula in which states pay 80 percent of the cost and the feds 20 percent.


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Experts say, however, that we need to spend at least $10 billion per year to keep traffic congestion from worsening and maintain current paving conditions.

It's even more important to maintain such a system in a global economy that demands better, quicker transportation for products we export and import.

California is trying to do something about it. The

$37 billion in infrastructure bonds on the fall ballot includes $19 billion in transportation improvements, including highways.

But more needs to be done. Maintaining something that exists is almost always cheaper than building new.

One possibility is increasing the gasoline and diesel tax or its state/federal distribution formula. Higher taxes, however, are a political anathema.

It's going to take a blend of approaches at national and state levels to provide the wherewithal to rehabilitate, construct and expand highways for our ever-growing population. Technology and new, more durable materials may be part of the answer. But toll roads and public-private partnerships must also be considered.

Indiana may privatize part of Interstate 80 going through that state, leasing it to Spanish and Australian firms that would collect tolls and maintain the crumbling highway with profits. That may not please everyone, however, since the amount spent on highways would depend on corporate earnings.

Different options may have to be used in different parts of the country because of geography and the feasibility of such alternatives as mass transit. In sparsely populated areas, rail and other mass people-moving systems aren't practical or economically

viable.

Rebuilding our interstate highway system requires innovative, flexible ways of thinking. Private-public partnerships must be considered. We need revenue to invest in order to keep the system going and growing.

In the half century since Eisenhower, these highways have become the transportation backbone of America. Economic necessity makes maintaining them a priority.