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This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by James LaRue. (Some columns are missing; some I have not posted because I don't have a clue what the dates were.)

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, provided attribution is provided. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1, 2011 - the science of highways

Every now and then, I run across something that so directly contradicts what I thought I knew that it stops me in my tracks.

I believed, like many people, that the Interstate Highways System was based on two memories of its champion, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After retiring as Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during WWII, he contrasted his admiration of the German Autobahn with his trip as a young officer with the 1919 Army Convoy. The 1919 convoy's goal had been to cross the country from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. It took 24 days. Twenty-one men were injured.

I assumed there had been business reasons for the highways, too, involving lobbying by the growing automobile industry.

Of course, Eisenhower wasn't the first to think of the problem, or the solution. Earlier plans had been drawn up. But it wasn't until 1956 that anything happened.

Why then?

Well, there was a socio-political component too: after the Supreme Court in 1954 ordered busing to address segregation, a lot of white people fled to the suburbs. And of course, the GI Bill paid for a lot of new housing.

But then I ran across a new explanation. I've been reading a book called "Fool me twice: fighting the assault on science," by Shawn Lawrence Otto.

In brief, Otto says it was all about the atomic bomb. The original military response plan to a nuclear attack was to tell its citizens to build bomb shelters, and "Duck and Cover." (The 1951 film of that name is available on Youtube. It features a remarkably catchy jingle for so grim a subject.)

But a school desk wasn't much protection against a gamma ray burst.

Eventually the Atomic Energy Commission realized the only way to survive the more powerful hydrogen bomb was not to be there when it went off. Otto writes, "As a civil defense official who served from 1953 to 1957 explained, the focus changed from 'Duck and Cover' to 'run like hell.'"

But evacuating a city, even with plenty of warning, just wasn't possible given the roads of the time. Hence, Congress approved the Interstate Highway System, whose full name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Fortunately, evacuating an American city before an impending nuclear attack has not yet been necessary. But the Interstate has been used, many times, to try to evacuate cities just ahead of hurricanes. Even with "counterflow" strategies (using all lines on both sides to go away from the city), the results have been mixed. But surely, it works better than the old congested lanes with a million intersections and stoplights.

The point has been made since that time that good roads are a major contributor to economic growth. Consider the effect of C-470 and E-470 alone on our regional economy.

Highways aren't cheap. In 2006, the cost of construction (for the length at that time of 46,876 miles of road) was estimated at $425 billion. About 70% of the funding comes from federal fuel taxes. The rest is from state and local matching funds.

The thesis of "Fool me twice" is that most of the problems - and potential solutions - we face or discover as a species these days are still rooted not just in politics, but in science. And that's something all of us could pay a little more attention to.
--
LaRue's Views are his own.

2 comments:

  1. I believe that originally the Interstate system was also designed to serve as emergency runways for military aircraft. Also - consider that one military vehicle set at say, Denver's Mousetrap or the Eisenhower Tunnel, could control nearly the entire state.

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  2. Wow. Never thought of that. But I do recall reading that it's happened at least once -- from the sky, highways do look like runways.

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