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[Updated January 17, 2019] Over and over again, when President Donald Trump has tried to make monumental change to U.S. policy, he has—pardon the pun—trumpeted the same justification: national security.
This tactic has been predictably divisive. Slapping tariffs on U.S. allies under a flimsy national security pretext nearly crippled an already weakened World Trade Organization; the Muslim travel ban to protect Americans from terrorists divided the country and frayed U.S. relations; and the ongoing border-wall debacle has forced hundreds of thousands of federal employees to go without pay.
"It's his universal solvent," said Bobby Chesney, a national security law expert at the University of Texas Austin, referring to the administration's inclination to cite national security to justify major policy moves.[i]
But maybe, just maybe, Trump might also be willing to consider the decaying condition of U.S. infrastructure a matter of national security. And if Congress played along, perhaps we'd finally get a comprehensive infrastructure bill.
It's actually not a radical proposition: infrastructure—specifically the National System of Interstate Highways—got its jump start as a national security issue.
In 1919, a 28-year-old Lt Colonel and West Point graduate volunteered to join a motor-vehicle caravan across the country. It was just the adventure this young officer needed—he had missed out on all the action in the Great War, assigned instead of combat to overseeing a stateside training camp. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
What was then called the War Department was increasingly excited about the automobiles possibilities as a tool for combat, and a cross country convoy offered a chance to explore the capabilities of these new cars and trucks.
There was just one problem: a car without roads is like a bobsled without ice. "To those that have known only concrete and macadam highways of gentle grades and engineered curves, such a trip might seem humdrum,” wrote the future president in his memoir. "In those days, we were not sure it could be accomplished at all. Nothing of the sort had ever been attempted."[ii]
In 1904, the United States had a grand total of 141 miles of paved roads, not counting city streets.[iii] By 1916, the federal government threw its weight into road building and created the Bureau of Public Roads, endowed with $75 million to hand out to states to help build interstate highways.[iv] The nations surfaced road mileage nearly doubled between 1914 to 1926, from 257,291 miles to 521,915 miles.[v] Nonetheless, when the caravan set off from Washington DC at 11:15 am on July 7, 1919, the convoy managed to advance only 46 miles that first day; on some days, the convoy progressed only three miles.[vi]
Fast forward 25 years, Eisenhower had risen to become commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, and he was deeply impressed by the German autobahns. Not only was the road network an impressive engineering feat with their banked curves and divided highways, but in wartime it was much more resilient than rail lines, allowing German forces to maneuver behind their lines swiftly even when the railways had been compromised.
When Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he took those lessons with him to the White House. "After seeing the autobahns of modern Germany…I decided as president to put an emphasis on the kind on this kind of road building," he later wrote. "The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land."[vii]
Even so, it took a couple of years and several unsuccessful attempts to get Congress to fund a National System of Interstate Highways. Although boosted by public support—72% of American families owned cars by the mid-1950s—there was also the cold war argument that the roads were essential to national defense. If the Russians shot nukes at U.S. cities, the argument went, freeways would help millions of civilians evacuate quickly. To drive home the point, the project was renamed the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.[viii]
Congress finally passed a bill to fund interstates in 1956, an act that would allocate 25 billion to build 41,000 miles of roads. When the U.S. interstate highway system was completed in 1991—nearly 20 years behind schedule—it stretched 46,876 miles and cost nearly $130 billion.[ix] At the time, it was the biggest public works project in American history and for a time the envy of much of the world.
That was then.
By 2015, U.S. road quality was ranked 14th, according to the World Economic Forum, behind countries like the UAE, Singapore and Portugal.[x] America's roads today are often crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded and are becoming more dangerous. More than $2 trillion is needed to repair 4 million miles of roads in the United States, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.[xi]
Despite this unfortunate turn of events, polarization in Congress this decade has neutered its ability to pass a comprehensive infrastructure bill. Optimist believe 2019 could be different, however.
"Over the past month, it's been frequently observed that infrastructure is a subject that's especially ripe for bipartisan legislation," Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in December. "This administration will continue to work with Congress to enhance existing infrastructure programs."[xii]
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the new chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he intends to have infrastructure policy legislation ready by summertime. The plan, DeFazio explained, would include a nationwide vehicle-miles-traveled pilot program, which many believe will add additional revenue streams to fund road repairs.
Bottom line, it's time to get a comprehensive infrastructure bill passed, Mr. President and Chairman DeFazio. And if you need to, use national security as an excuse.
Eisenhower did it.
[The article was updated to reflect the correct number of federal employees without pay during the partial government shutdown.]
[i] Restuccia, A. (2019, January 8). 'It’s his universal solvent': How Trump sidelines Congress by invoking national security. Politico. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from https://www.politico.com/story/2019/01/08/trump-sidelines-congress-invoking-national-security-1088723
[ii] Dwight D. Eisenhower,At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends (Doubleday, 1967), 157.
[iv] Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 339-49, 532.
[vi] Vince Beiser,The World in a Grain (Riverhead Books, 2018), 50-1.
[vii] Eisenhower,At Ease, 166-7.
[viii] Richard F. Weingroff, "The Year of the Interstate," Public Roads, January-February 2006.
[x] The Global Economy. (2015). Roads Quality – Country Ranking. Retrieved from https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/roads_quality/
[xi] Sudo, C. (2017, November 28). America's Roads are Crumbling and Packed with Cars. Forbes. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bisnow/2017/11/28/americas-roads-are-crumbling-and-packed-with-cars/#18aeacf31659
[xii] Lamb, E. (2018, December 11). DOT Announces BUILD Grant Recipients. Transport Topics. Retrieved January 8, 2019 from https://www.ttnews.com/articles/dot-announces-build-grant-recipients
[xiii] Mulero, E. (2019, January 3). Trump, Congress Eye Possibility of Infrastructure Bill in 2019. Transport Topics. Retrieved January 9, 2019 from https://www.ttnews.com/articles/trump-congress-eye-possibility-infrastructure-bill-2019