America is a vast country. If you were to drive from Miami to Seattle, you would travel 3,300 miles and spend 49 hours behind the wheel, not counting meals, sleep, or a stretch of the legs.
You would begin on Interstate Highway 95 in Miami, then merge two and a half hours later onto the Florida Turnpike through the center of the state. From the turnpike, you’d take I-85 to Atlanta, go through the city, and make a dogleg turn at the Tennessee state line to I-24 to Nashville. From there you’d go northwest on I-64 and west on I-70 across the Midwest. At Kansas City, you’d make a sharp right turn on I-29 until you hit I-90 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Relax, you’re more than halfway to Seattle at this point.) Turn left on I-90 and it’s more or less a straight shot and about 1,500 miles over the Great Plains and up and down the Cascade Range to Seattle.
Not many people would ever make such a journey, but you could. And except for a few toll roads (the Florida Turnpike most prominently), you’d travel at no charge on extraordinarily well built and maintained highways, driving at 70 miles per hour most of the way. (In Montana and South Dakota, you could legally take it up to 80 mph.)
The reason you can take these roads today and travel seamlessly across this vast country—and the reason your great-great-grandparents could have taken a railroad trip from the East Coast to the West a century ago—was because the federal government made it possible, with assistance from the states.
Let’s begin with the railroads. There were railroads in the eastern half of the U.S. before the Civil War but none went farther west than Omaha, Nebraska. To reach San Francisco or Seattle, then, you had three choices: a long sea voyage around the tip of South America; two shorter sea voyages and an overland route through the Isthmus of Panama; or overland by wagon train.
The existing rail companies didn’t want to take on the monumental task of building the 2,000 miles from Omaha to California because of the distances and emptiness of all that land. So a group began lobbying Congress for help, and Congress agreed, amazingly, during the darkest years of the Civil War.
This is a familiar story and one we’ll visit again in future postings. It’s a form of market failure. Turns out, companies are good at serving concentrated populations in cities and suburbs but don’t do as well when asked to serve distant and sparse populations. As a result, government has sometimes stepped in when private enterprise wasn’t up to the challenge.
That’s why the first transcontinental railroad—again, the 2,000-mile stretch from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast—was built by private companies with government subsidies between 1864 and 1869. (Over the next few decades, other companies also built lines to or through the West that were considered part of the transcontinental system. They, too, had government help.) The subsidies were federally-backed loans and land grants for these private companies. Before it was done, the federal government had given away an astonishing 130 million acres of land.
But behold the results: Overnight, the railroads cut travel time from six months to one week and ticket prices from $1,000 per passenger to $150. They opened up farming and cattle ranching on the Great Plains and mining in the West. They connected the West Coast to the East Coast.
It’s hard to imagine the rise of Denver or Salt Lake City without the transcontinental railroads. Chicago almost certainly would not have become the industrial powerhouse it did without rail connections to the West. And, obviously, California’s development would not have progressed without the interstate travel that government made possible.
So that was how government helped build the transcontinental railroads. The interstate highways—like those you might drive on from Miami to Seattle—were done differently. For them, government cut out the middle man. It didn’t subsidize private companies; rather, the highways were government work pretty much from start to finish. It was also a textbook example of how the states and the federal government, for all their squabbling, sometimes work together extraordinarily well.
In the 1800s, the federal government assisted states off and on in building or expanding horse-and-buggy roads, with the thought that it would help with mail delivery in particular (a federal responsibility) and interstate commerce in general. But federal aid for highway building really began at the dawn of the auto age in 1916 with the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act. In it, Washington offered to help finance state road building, but only if the states set up professional highway departments. Most states seized the opportunity, and the age of road building truly began.
The federal government had some criteria. The roads it financed had to assist with interstate commerce and be uniform in material and size, so if you crossed a state line you would hardly notice. But for the most part the federal government did not dictate where the roads went.
That changed with the passage in 1956 of the federal law creating the interstate highway system and a federal gasoline tax to finance it. For the interstates, the federal government took a lead role in designing the roads (there’s a reason the interstate system has limited access and its signage is so uniform) and deciding which sections would be built. But it left actual construction to the states, and the states are the owners of these highways.
It was a 35-year partnership that worked remarkably well. The interstate highway system was completed in 1992 after building 48,000 miles of road in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. It includes nearly 56,000 bridges, 82 tunnels, and 14,750 interchanges. The interstate highway system makes up less than 1 percent of total U.S. highway mileage but carries 24 percent of highway travel and more than 40 percent of truck travel.
And it makes it possible for you to drive from Miami to Seattle at speeds and cost, in safety and comfort that would have been unimaginable in 1950. And for this, you can thank the government.
Give the credit to: federal government, 75%, state governments 20%, railroad companies 5%