Assuming time travel is off the table, let’s learn from our mistakes. First, let’s get the federal government completely out of the business of maintaining the interstate highways crisscrossing our big metropolitan areas. Hand these roads over to state governments as soon as possible, and free state governments to finance these roads in any way they see fit, from higher state gas taxes to variable tolls they could use to reduce traffic congestion. Second, for interstate highways that connect cities across deserts and cornfields, let’s replace the federal gasoline tax with per-mile tolls. One of the many problems with the gas tax is that as gas mileage improves, and as a small but growing number of drivers turn to electric vehicles, gas tax revenue is not keeping up with the needs of the highway system. Per-mile tolls can solve that problem by charging drivers according to how much they actually use the highway system, regardless of the kind of vehicle they’re driving. And as Robert W. Poole Jr. explains, they can be pegged to the cost of each road and bridge, which will help ensure that roads and bridges are adequately financed.
After adopting this approach, we will see states investing in the infrastructure projects that best meet their needs, with some states, like California and New York, choosing to invest more heavily in urban mass transit while others, like Texas and Utah, build bigger and better highways. What remains of the federal highway system, meanwhile, will evolve over time, as the routes that attract the most traffic will grow in line with their per-mile toll revenue while those that attract the least will stay the same size, or perhaps even shrink. We’ll have an infrastructure worthy of a bigger, denser, more decentralized America—the kind of infrastructure that Ike, in his infinite wisdom, would be proud of.
An interesting argument that might have appeal for both liberals and conservatives. For conservatives, having more local control is generally good and states could innovate in a way that a larger bureaucracy might not. (At the same time, corporate interests cross state and national lines and they might not like a decentralized highway network.) For liberals, highways have often been used in redevelopment projects harming poorer neighborhoods and state control would theoretically give neighborhoods and communities more say over the fate of highways. Additionally, interstates encourage sprawl and liberals might want to reign in highway building and maintenance in many places.
I could also imagine several objections to this argument:
1. How many states would be willing to take this on right now given budget issues? This would have to be phased in over time. Which government officials want to take responsibility for raising tolls for driving?
2. Uniformity in the system could be a good thing ranging from common road signs to expectations regarding levels of maintenance and service across states.