In 1991, the Federal Highway Administration revealed that the total cost of the Interstate Highway System was a whopping $128.9 billion, or about half a trillion dollars in 2016’s money. In 2019, state and local governments spent $203 billion to maintain existing highways and roads, only 37% of which came from fuel taxes and toll facilities, with the rest coming from general tax revenues. Since 1977, inflation-adjusted state and local spending on highways and roads has more than doubled, an increase partly fueled by a 185% increase in construction costs since 1993. In short, highways are expensive and getting more costly every year.
This short financial review makes it clear that the federal highway system is lumbering toward a crisis of epic proportions. The federal fuel tax, perhaps the most obvious avenue for raising highway funds, has not been increased in more than 27 years and currently sits at 18.3 cents per gallon. To make up for the difference, this tax would need to be raised astronomically, by nearly 360%, to 65 cents. At a time when the price of gas is an increasingly potent talking point, there is little hope such a tax hike would be politically feasible. Worse yet, congestion cannot be cancelled out by extensive highway expansions. The decades-long growth in vehicle miles traveled, meaning more people driving more miles, has contributed to rapidly worsening congestion, suggesting that new highways, even if we could pay for them, will not solve congestion.
The U.S. is at a critical turning point, facing ballooning maintenance and construction costs. Without our regular routes for raising revenue, our government must choose which path it will follow. One path sees the government retrenching its position and desperately attempting a massive tax increase, possibly solving the problem for a few years, but failing to address the greater ills facing the system. But a better way forward sees the government addressing the root of the problem — overreliance on roads — and investing in intercity public transportation.
While the environmental benefits of intercity public transport are well understood, what has gone underrecognized is its capacity to help solve the highway system’s endlessly growing woes. By reducing the number of vehicles on the road, both maintenance and construction costs would be dramatically reduced. Without such intense traffic volumes, the need for constant maintenance would be alleviated so that pricey reconstructions and repavings would be needed less often. In addition, by limiting the growth of traffic, the need for new highways or expansions to accommodate greater traffic is lessened.
This makes efficient, high speed, intercity rail an attractive way to write down our country’s enormous highway budget. Naturally, such an extensive system would be expensive, but it would likely pay for its own operating costs. While highways generally do not cover their own costs, intercity transit easily recovers a far greater portion of its operating costs through fares. American passenger rail is a notable success in this way, with Amtrak recovering 95% of its expenses at the farebox in the last year before the pandemic. Though profitability is not the most important factor when judging which type of transportation infrastructure to adopt, it is a notable point in intercity rail’s favor that it can mostly pay for its own regular expenses — a point which, while obvious, cannot be overstated.
Beyond considering the strict financial implications of a transportation system, efficiency must also be a key metric for evaluating infrastructure projects. This is another area in which intercity rail really shines: A single high-speed rail line has a greater capacity than a 10-lane highway. What’s more, a single rail line occupies half the footprint of a four lane highway, yet it has more than double the shipping capacity.
Since intercity public transport is inherently more efficient than a highway, it is likewise far more cost effective to maintain and operate. While cost estimates per mile for high-speed rail vary widely, an Obama-era plan for a nationwide high-speed rail system was estimated to cost more than half a trillion dollars, a total similar to that of the Interstate Highway System. So, for the same price that it cost America to build its signature highway system, it could have a system wildly more efficient and capable of meeting far greater demand than even the widest highway. Regional plans are also more cost effective: For moderate-speed rail, the cost for a 3,150-mile system spanning the whole Midwest would be only $7.7 billion, or just under 4% of what the U.S. spends per year on highway maintenance and construction. And the project would still bring significant capacity increases over the highway system.
Greater capacity also increases the economic benefits of the system, helping justify any of its lofty costs. Economists frequently point to how effectively the interstate highway moves people and freight as the key to its success. One estimate says that from 1950 to 1980, one quarter of U.S. productivity growth was attributable to investments in the Interstate Highway System. So, if rail can move people and goods many times more efficiently than highways, then it necessarily follows that the creation of an efficient rail network as expansive as our highway system would have broad economic benefits. As a result, it is easy to justify the initial capital costs for an expanded rail system, as it would make the country far more prosperous.
Ultimately, America cannot meet the demands of its highway users. The cost of maintaining existing highways, and the huge burden posed by the construction of new highways, would only serve to waste money. Thus, the U.S. is left with only one reasonable option — one which will not only rid us of the burden of maintaining and expanding an outdated system, but will also make the country more prosperous. A robust intercity transit system is needed to save the country from its destructive course and ensure that people and goods can safely travel without having to sit in gridlock. Only an expanded rail network can actually meet the growing transportation needs of the American people, and it must be pursued without delay.
Gabe Sender ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.