Editorial Notebook

June 24, 2006|By PETER JENSEN

This week, as Maryland commuters find themselves in a familiar place - most likely trapped in a rolling backup on Interstate 95 - they may want to take a moment for a non-alcoholic toast to the 50th anniversary of America's interstate highways. This Thursday marks the date when Dwight David Eisenhower fathered the interstate system. (Admittedly, not quite like saving the world from Hitler, but still a big deal.) This single stroke of the pen led to nearly 47,000 miles of highway and a robust market for license plate bingo.

Recognizing the tremendous public interest in this important milestone of public infrastructure, we have put together a list of frequently asked (by which we mean obvious) questions about the system with helpful (by which we mean made up) answers that readers are certain to recognize for their general aura of truthiness.

Our thanks to the federal government for providing useful research and for all the short merge lanes, confusing signs, excessive tolls, speed traps, crowded rest stops and incidents of road rage that our nation's super highways have made possible.

Question: How much has the interstate system cost?

Answer: About $128.9 billion, with most going into the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Q: Who has paid for it?

A: Funny you should ask. For most of its history, the federal government has forked over 90 percent. We're not certain where they got the money but boy, it just keeps coming. Back in the 1950s, Congress thought the whole thing would cost about $27 billion. A 400 percent cost overrun is awfully good by Washington standards.

Q: Where was the first interstate?

A: U.S. 40 west of Topeka. Congress felt an obligation to launch the project in Kansas in case something went horribly wrong.

Q: Who sets the speed limits?

A: Generally speaking, each state does. That's why much of Maryland's interstates are limited to 65 miles per hour while drivers in Montana can cruise at roughly the speed of sound. President Richard M. Nixon set a national 55-mph speed limit in 1974 and was shortly thereafter forced out of office.

Q: Why are bicycles prohibited on interstates?

A: This is quite a stumper so we dispatched our crack summer intern on a bike ride down the middle of I-70 to find out. That was last Tuesday.

Q: Are interstates safe?

A: Technically, interstates are the safest roads in the country. Growing congestion has only made them even safer as the average speed in the Northeast hovers around that of a hedgehog.

Q: Why aren't interstate signs in metric?

A: President Jimmy Carter liked the idea of metric conversion and was promptly voted out of office.

Q: How are interstates numbered?

A: North-south are odds, east-west are evens. Number is left to right (the opposite of the older U.S. numbered highways). Next year they're all scheduled to switch positions so everyone gets a turn.

Q: Why do interstate numbers have a shield?

A: You got a problem with that? Believe it or not, there was a design contest. You should have seen the other entries.

Q: How can I get a new interstate built?

A: It's a carefully reviewed process in which the appropriate federal agencies study the need, impacts, costs and benefits. Nah, we're yanking your chain. You buy an influential congressman.

Q: How come some states charge tolls on the interstate?

A: The federal government has given states the authority to collect tolls to cover costs. Obviously, Delaware has abused the privilege, and ought to be sold to the DuPonts.

Q: Are interstates designed to be wide enough to land planes?

A: This is a myth. While the Eisenhower administration pondered such a move, another innovation, the overcrowded suburban airport, was ultimately adopted for air travel.

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