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Do We Need the Interstate Highway System?

Written: 2002-07-01
Edited: 2021-08-12


America’s roads are critical for moving a growing number of goods and people. However, these vital lifelines have been underfunded for years. More than 40% of the system is in poor or mediocre condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which gave overall U.S. infrastructure a C-, gives our roads a D. A study published in 1996 titled “40 Years of the US Interstate Highway System: An Analysis. The Best Investment A Nation Ever Made“said, “Many portions of the interstate highway system are strained to capacity, increasing delays and air pollution and dampening economic activity.” Congress has passed a 2,700-page infrastructure bill. The bill faces numerous obstacles to getting passed in the House, most of which are political. Congress is well known for passing bills to do something new but then does not provide funding to keep it new. The Interstate Highway System, which Congress passed June 26, 1956 is a good example. Our Congress is also known for having their fingers in the cookie jar, so no telling what will be in the enormous bill if it gets passed.

During June, 2021, I made an 8-state car trip in the Tesla and found plenty of charging stations (which by the end of the year will accommodate EVs other than Teslas). Every state had major construction underway, but it was clear it will take years to get things in good shape even if the funding becomes available.

A 2002 motorcycling trip gave me a new perspective on Interstates. I had long wanted to take a motorcycle trip from my summer home in Pennsylvania down to southern New Jersey to visit my mother at her assisted living home and then ride back to my home in Connecticut. The challenge I gave myself was to do this without using the Interstate Highway System. My study was to be a motorcycle ride to see for myself the prospective benefits of the Interstate system.

I am not really a road geek, I just wanted to see what the trip would be like and how long it would take. It was forecasted to be a hot day with highs in the 90’s and the possibility of thunderstorms. I departed on the Harley at 10 a.m. from Greentown, Pennsylvania and headed south on route 507 with the Garmin StreetPilot GPS pointing to Pennsville, New Jersey. It would be 126 miles the way the crow flies. The StreetPilot shows color maps and, although it doesn’t tell you when and where to turn, it would always be pointing precisely at Pennsville. I purposely did not do much planning. I would just use a form of dead reckoning, pick interesting back roads, and use the GPS to confirm I was heading in the right general direction. My adventure had begun.

The early phases of the trip were very enjoyable. I picked up route 191 in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania and continued south. It was beautiful weaving through the hills, mountains, and along the creeks and rivers of the Pocono Mountain region of northeastern Pennsylvania. It was fun to see the various farms, businesses, homes, people to wave to, and other scenes I don’t normally notice when driving a car. Avoiding the interstate highway system was no problem until I got to East Stroudsburg. This was the point at which it was time to cross over from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. I knew there was a bridge there but didn’t recall it was connected to Interstate 80 on both sides. So, for a short few miles, I was on the interstate system. I took the first exit I could after arriving in New Jersey and shortly thereafter found myself crossing back over a bridge I didn’t know about back into Pennsylvania!

At this point, I decided to continue down Route 611 which meanders along the Delaware River separating Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I’m glad I did. It was a beautiful ride. I arrived in Easton, Pennsylvania, crossed over a bridge back into New Jersey and used dead reckoning to find my way through Phillipsburg, back into the countryside of North Jersey and continued to head south. I stopped at a Citgo gas station and food mart for some gas and a sandwich. I was 70 miles from my destination, the way the crow flies, probably closer to 100 miles the way the roads go. I continued along the Delaware River but now on the New Jersey side. There are many historical sites along this route. I passed by Washington Crossing State Park, and it conjured up an image of the famous painting of the General standing in the boat with his troops rowing him across the river. Beautiful historical homes were in abundance and later the gold dome of the capitol of New Jersey in Trenton came in view. I had a patriotic feeling for this whole phase of the trip.

Then it was into real South Jersey. No more big buildings. No more mountains or hills visible in any direction. Instead, corn fields, barns, farms, farmhouses, and flat roads make up much of this part of the world. One of the most impressive historical towns in New Jersey is Haddonfield. Cruising on the Harley down Main Street was a treat with stunning 200+ year-old homes with American flags and flowers everywhere. I arrived at Mom’s place around 4 p.m. The odometer reading was 187 miles. This meant there was about a sixty mile and three-hour penalty for my adventure but it was well worth it. Mom was thrilled to take her walker outside to see the Harley.

The return trip was a different story. The forecast was hazy, hot, and humid. All three turned out to be true. The day was to be a brutal endurance test. I was at times tempted to get on the Interstate and shorten the trip, but I resisted. The trip started out with a ride by the house in Salem, New Jersey where I grew up and then off into the countryside. Flat roads and a lot of farms. This lasted for about an hour, but as I headed up the middle of the state, the population, the traffic, the congestion, all increased dramatically. I got to see the inner-city view of North Brunswick and other cities in the Northern part of New Jersey. 

Route 202 was born in 1936, stretching more than 600 miles along the northeast corridor. Over the years, 202 got partially replaced here and there by other highways. In some places 202 just stops. No signs, no detours, just an end where another route picks up. Using my GPS, I continued east or west and then north and eventually picked up 202 again. This happened several times. I made several mistakes in judgment but eventually got to the top of the state.

I didn’t want to take the George Washington or Tappan Zee bridges to cross the Hudson River, so I continued north through the beautiful Harriman State Park (home to a lot of bears) to Bear Mountain and then across the river. The last part of the trip took me through Peekskill, New York and then on to Connecticut.

The trip would have been 185 miles by the Interstate System, my trip was 270 miles and took eight hours. I am glad I did it but won’t be anxious to repeat it for quite a while. Do we need the Interstate Highway System? I don’t believe for one second we can do without it any more than we can do without the railroad system or our airline system. My adventure made me appreciate the back roads, communities, and ways of life I witnessed. The physical drain of the trip made me appreciate the efficiency of the Interstate Highway System. It’s a good thing the nation’s commerce doesn’t depend on back roads and motorcycles.

Epilog. There are vast resources online about every aspect of roads and highways. See Personal Road and Highway Pages and History of the US Highway System. Also, take a look at the Report Card for America’s Road Infrastructure.