If you’re like me, during your holiday drives this year you found yourself mumbling, “Where are all these people going? . . . Where did they come from? . . . They’re in my way . . . If this guy doesn’t let me in, I’ll ram him . . . If this guy tries to get in, I’ll ram him . . . It was never like this when dad drove us to grandma’s in his 1975 Nova.”
Can traffic have gotten this much worse since we got our licenses, I would wonder, or am I just imagining it as part of the crankiness that makes me say things like “I never talked to my father that way” (a lie) and “Motley Crue, now that was music” (also a lie)?
But we’re not imagining the nightmarish increase in traffic. In 1970, the United States had 111 million vehicles operating on the nation’s 3,730,000 miles of road. By 2013, the United States had 256 million vehicles operating on the nation’s 4,071,000 miles of road.
So the number of cars and trucks on our streets increased by 130 percent, while the miles of road rose 9 percent.
The roads are jammed, and it’s made one of the culture’s principal joys back in the day an anger-inducing slog that causes people to say things they don’t mean to loved ones, or just as bad, to say things they really do mean to loved ones.
I didn’t need the statistics to see the truth, because I hardly ever see a significant new road being built. But I see new people all the time. More people in more cars without more roads is not good.
We don’t get new lanes either. Interstate 95, running down the entire eastern spine of this country, has been mostly the same width since I was born. So has the Long Island Expressway, and most roads we all use to get where we’re going. Isn’t it time we had some new roads, and some new lanes on the old ones?
Sometimes I think, “It’s just horrible because I live in the New York metropolitan area, a road-rage capital.” But that’s not so either. Granted, there are places in the middle of the nation that have enough asphalt. I was in Iowa this year and saw more corn than cars. But many of the highways and surface roads within 200 miles of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, as well as those around inland urban centers, are clogged.
So why don’t we have more miles of road to go with all these cars and trucks and boat trailers and RVs? I’d say there are two big reasons.
The federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.2 cents a gallon since 1993, with about three cents going to mass transit and the rest dedicated to roads. Had the tax risen with inflation, it would be about 30 cents a gallon, and we’d probably have more and better roads.
And many people don’t want the nation paved, at least not near their houses or favorite parks. That, too, impedes road construction.
Atrocious traffic is fixable. We need to increase the gas tax to that 30 cents a gallon, and index it to inflation. And we must decide as a country how much to spend on mass transit and roads and how much we can encourage other modes, like biking and smaller vehicles, and more efficient and safer driving technology. If we’re going to be a great nation, ease of travel is a must.
This is not, in a sane political scenario, a GOP/Democrat issue. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush increased the gas tax to support infrastructure. Right now, our political leaders won’t. Which means when we’re stuck in traffic on an outdated road and there is no mass transit available, it’s a nightmare for which we voted. And if we want it to improve, or just not get much worse, we must support politicians who will support paying for great infrastructure, so we can be a great nation.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.