Skip to contentUnited States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA Home
Research Home
Public Roads
Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 57· No. 3 > The National Highway System: Backbone of Our National Transportation Network

Summer 1994
Vol. 57· No. 3

The National Highway System: Backbone of Our National Transportation Network

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Federal Highway Administrator Rodney E. Slater on December 9, 1993, and from materials provided by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Office of Program Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

On December 9, 1993, at Union Station in Washington, D.C., U.S. DOT Secretary Federico Peña and FHWA Administrator Slater announced the submission of the National Highway System (NHS) plan to Congress. Peña also outlined his principles and goals for a National Transportation System (NTS).

"Union Station serves as a fitting backdrop for the unveiling of the National Highway System," said Slater. "Just outside the station, Louisiana Avenue is part of the National Highway System -- demonstrating how the National Highway System can provide links among the many modes that make up our transportation network. In fact, the National Highway System enhances the other modes by linking them.

"This is perhaps the most important event I will have the opportunity to participate in as your Federal Highway Administrator, because the National Highway System is going to be the backbone of our national transportation network in the 21st century. It's going to affect every American, directly or indirectly ...

"In the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, known as ISTEA, Congress called on the Department of Transportation to submit a proposal identifying the routes that will be included in the National Highway System.

"The proposed National Highway System consists of nearly 159,000 miles of the most important roads in the United States.

"To put this in perspective, a National Highway System of this scale would include only four percent of the 3.9 million miles of our public roads. Nevertheless, the National Highway System will carry over 40 percent of the nation's highway traffic, carrying people and goods.

"That's strategic investment."

The United States spends nearly $1 trillion a year--17 percent of our gross domestic product--on transportation services. A 1-percent improvement in the overall efficiency of America's transportation system would translate into nearly $100 billion in savings across the economy within a decade.

On February 19, 1991, FHWA submitted an illustrative map of a proposed NHS to the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation and to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. ISTEA directed DOT to use the illustrative system as the starting point for a report to Congress in two years, identifying highways proposed to be designated as part of a 155,000-mile NHS (plus or minus 15 percent). The approved elements of NHS are the interstate system, high-priority corridors identified in ISTEA, the Strategic Highway Network and its connectors, and selected principal arterials.

Following enactment of ISTEA, FHWA worked with state and local officials

and the Department of Defense to prepare recommendations. A nationwide functional classification of the nation's roads, conducted by FHWA and state and local officials and completed in early 1993, identified all principal arterials. The state transportation departments then worked with local officials to develop recommendations on which principal arterials should be included in NHS. FHWA also worked with other DOT agencies to identify airport, maritime, port, rail, and transit facilities that were sufficiently important to be illustrated in the NHS report.

Under ISTEA, congressional approval of NHS is required by September 30, 1995. Since the enactment of ISTEA, the states have been able to use NHS funding on any road classified as a principal arterial. Following congressional approval, funding will be limited to routes in NHS.

With completion of the NHS report to Congress, DOT is taking the next important step by launching an effort to develop the National Transportation System.

"A comprehensive National Transportation System will help us meet the challenges of the 21st century global economy by enhancing all our different modes of transportation and their links -- increasing the efficiency and productivity of our nation," Peña said.

NTS will incorporate from all the modes the most significant elements of the nation's transportation systems. Beginning with NHS, NTS will include airports, ports, waterways, rail, intercity bus lines, pipelines, and local transit systems with regional and national impact. NTS will also include systems moving both people and freight as well as facilities owned by both private business and the public sector.

NHS is the core of the future NTS.

Slater explained NHS in detail: "The first component of the proposed National Highway System is the 45,000-mile interstate system, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the proposed system mileage.

"The second component includes 21 congressionally designated high-priority corridors as identified in the ISTEA. These corridors total 4,500 miles.

"The third component is the non-interstate portion of the Strategic Highway Corridor Network (STRAHNET), identified by the Department of Defense in cooperation with the Department of Transportation. It totals about 15,700 miles. Based on the most recent information, including plans for base closures, these corridors and the interstate system have been identified by the Department of Defense as the most critical highway links in our transportation system. As we found during Desert Storm, highway mobility is essential to our national defense by giving us the ability to move troops and equipment to airports, to ports, to rail lines, and to other bases for rapid deployment.

"The fourth component is major Strategic Highway Corridor Network connectors. They consist of 1,900 miles of roads linking major military installations and other defense-related facilities to the STRAHNET corridors. "Collectively, these four components -- all specifically required by ISTEA -- account for 67,500 miles or roughly 43 percent of the proposed system.

"The remainder of the proposed system -- totalling 91,000 miles -- is made up of other important arterial highways that serve interstate and interregional travel and that provide connections to major ports, airports, public transportation facilities, and other intermodal facilities ...

"Like so much that is important about ISTEA, the National Highway System is a flexible concept ... The National Highway System will not be another interstate system. Beyond the interstate portion, the National Highway System is mostly two-lane roads today and will likely remain that way.

"In fact, virtually all of the National Highway System is existing mileage. Less than 2 percent is new mileage, and that's because it's already in state plans.

"The advantage of the National Highway System concept is that it will encourage state transportation agencies to focus on a limited number of high priority routes for improvement with federal-aid funds. These improvements will address traffic needs safely and efficiently, generally within existing rights-of-way ...

"The National Highway System will also strengthen our links with Canada and Mexico, especially by providing some of the vitally needed north-south connectors. Today, even before NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) goes into effect, trucks carry about 80 percent of freight shipments between the United States and Mexico and about 60 percent of freight shipments between the United States and Canada. When NAFTA removes trade barriers next year, as well as barriers to international trucking operations, traffic on all modes should increase significantly. The National Highway System will serve this traffic efficiently by linking with the Canadian and Mexican highway systems in a high-performance network spanning most of North America.

NATIONAL HIGHWAY SYSTEM FACT SHEET

System Extent
Rural Mileage118,834 (75%)
Urban Mileage 39,840 (25%)
Total Mileage 158,674
Required Components
Interstate System 45,376 miles
Strategic Highway Network 15,668 miles
Major Strategic Highway Network Connectors for 242 Military Installations1,890 miles
Congressional High Priority Corridors4,506 miles
System Characteristics
Full Access Control
Interstate System44,376 miles
Non-Interstate Routes7,876 miles
Total52,252 miles
Jurisdictional Control
State Owned (Estimated)150,000 miles
Other Owned (Estimated)9,000 miles
Travel Served
Rural (Percent of total rural vehicle miles of travel)42% (Est.)
Urban (Percent of total urban vehicle miles of travel)40% (Est.)
Intermodal Facilities (Illustrated on maps)
Water Ports104
Airports143
Amtrak Stations321
Rail/Truck Terminals191
Public Transportation Systems319
Border Crossings
With Canada32
With Mexico21

"The report we are releasing today stresses the economic benefits, but let me just outline a few of them:

  • The National Highway System will provide what our retail, industrial, and other employers need -- namely, a predictable, consistent, and reliable delivery system.
  • It will provide low-cost, reliable, and flexible transportation to minimize costs, serve plants geared to just-in-time delivery, and make our companies more competitive in the global marketplace.

"Another economic benefit of the National Highway System is that it will help us confront the problems of traffic congestion by targeting current and projected bottlenecks. Whether you're a shipper, who lives by the principle that time is money, or a commuter trying to get to and from work with a minimum of hassles, congestion is an economic drain--estimated at about $40 billion a year in our major urban areas.

"That's not even counting the loss of our peace of mind and tranquility. "Safe, efficient operation. That, in short, is what the National Highway System is all about!

"Today, we are transmitting our recommendations to Congress, which must take the next important step -- approving the National Highway System.

"Our report calls for designation of the proposed National Highway System routes but also recommends that the Secretary of Transportation have the authority to modify the network, at the request of the states, to meet changing needs. In addition, we call for identification -- within 2 years -- of appropriate intermodal connections to the National Highway System.

"ISTEA sets a deadline of September 30, 1995, for congressional action. But I can assure you that the president, Secretary Peña, and I will be challenging the Congress to complete action on this vital transportation advancement long before then.

"Today, the National Highway System is the next generation -- the next step to continuing the progress that has made the United States the most mobile nation in history."

Estimated Mileage and Travel for Proposed National Highway System

State
Proposed NHS Rural
Percent of Total Rural Miles
Estimated Travel Rural NHS (Millions)
Percent of Total Travel
Total NHS Urban Miles
Percent of Total Urban Miles
Estimated Travel Urban NHS (Millions)
Percent of Urban Travel
Total NHS Mileage
ALABAMA
2,6303.6%9,01241.4%1,0405.3%8,55035.9%3,670
ALASKA
1,48912.5%99246.8%1207.3%83842.9%1,609
ARIZONA
2,1395.1%6,61749.4%6594.9%7,60735.3%2,798
ARKANSAS
2,2423.2%5,79840.4%4015.3%3,37641.7%2,643
CALIFORNIA
4,9225.6%27,91653.6%2,5083.1%95,46045.5%7,430
COLORADO
2,6124.0%5,84652.3%7616.0%8,10748.1%3,373
CONNECTICUT
3624.1%2,55642.6%6145.3%10,01347.9%976
DELAWARE
2105.7%1,43751.3%955.1%1,43235.6%305
DIST. OF COLUMBIA
00.0%00.0%736.6%1,42640.7%73
FLORIDA
2,9264.5%17,88450.7%1,1722.4%21,73922.3%4,098
GEORGIA
3,4794.1%11,33136.4%1,1834.4%14,81336.5%4,662
HAWAII
1486.3%75231.1%1667.9%2,09632.0%314
IDAHO
2,2073.9%3,38245.3%1374.7%1,00428.4%2,344
ILLINOIS
3,2993.3%10,41339.6%2,0466.0%25,40841.4%5,345
INDIANA
2,0972.9%10,51135.7%6233.3%7,26227.6%2,720
IOWA
2,7312.6%5,71538.4%4735.2%2,49030.7%3,204
KANSAS
3,3912.7%5,62443.8%3964.2%3,54031.5%3,787
KENTUCKY
2,2133.6%8,15738.1%4565.7%5,83535.0%2,669
LOUISIANA
1,9344.2%6,25036.5%7355.1%7,98439.3%2,669
MAINE
9804.9%3,09435.9%1596.3%1,06634.9%1,139
MARYLAND
8065.2%6,36049.5%5554.1%13,15745.3%1,361
MASSACHUSETTS
4864.1%4,04649.2%1,3736.2%17,52743.2%1,859
MICHIGAN
3,0413.4%11,14238.0%1,6776.0%23,41244.5%4,718
MINNESOTA
3,2612.8%6,73335.9%6864.7%8,87043.3%3,947
MISSISSIPPI
2,3393.6%6,36238.1%3714.6%2,40329.3%2,710
MISSOURI
3,5383.4%11,90248.3%9585.4%12,85341.2%4,496
MONTANA
3,6935.4%3,42055.5%1164.9%44620.4%3,809
NEBRASKA
2,7783.2%3,98144.6%2975.9%2,14037.9%3,075
NEVADA
1,9414.7%3,65666.0%2044.9%4,34439.0%2,145
NEW HAMPSHIRE
6345.2%2,36639.1%1585.4%1,65042.4%792
NEW JERSEY
6636.3%5,88457.0%1,2845.4%22,55046.1%1,947
NEW MEXICO
2,6604.8%5,65245.8%3175.4%2,43436.6%2,977
NEW YORK
2,6733.8%10,15733.1%2,2065.5%34,31742.4%4,879
NORTH CAROLINA
2,9724.0%13,71841.4%9614.5%10,53536.4%3,933
NORTH DAKOTA
2,4552.9%1,79240.7%1045.6%39525.2%2,599
OHIO
2,8763.5%13,48835.7%1,6075.1%22,61739.3%4,477
OKLAHOMA
2,6742.7%6,79839.8%4573.7%5,62130.7%3,131
OREGON
3,2243.7%7,79452.9%4464.5%5,45442.5%3,670
PENNSYLVANIA
3,4664.0%15,42541.4%1,9226.2%19,67538.1%5,388
PUERTO RICO
1792.2%1,11633.0%2554.3%3,47334.6%434
RHODE ISLAND
886.0%49458.9%1793.8%2,26536.1%267
SOUTH CAROLINA
2,0163.7%8,86942.7%6295.9%5,57940.4%2,654
SOUTH DAKOTA
2,8503.5%1,78341.3%1045.4%34326.6%2,954
TENNESSEE
2,3773.5%10,86442.8%9375.6%11,02639.4%3,314
TEXAS
8,7714.0%26,78146.2%4,5405.7%56,54847.5%13,311
UTAH
1,7864.8%3,43860.7%3796.2%4,59846.5%2,165
VERMONT
6064.7%1,73441.8%796.0%38523.1%685
VIRGINIA
2,2064.3%11,62743.4%1,2407.1%14,20541.4%3,446
WASHINGTON
2,6084.2%7,08449.6%7344.1%12,35141.0%3,342
WEST VIRGINIA
1,4464.6%4,93043.9%2197.1%1,96141.4%1,665
WISCONSIN
3,2073.4%9,96239.7%8715.7%7,62432.5%4,078
WYOMING
2,5076.9%2,86759.2%1737.3%52931.4%2,680
TOTAL
118,8383.8%372,75942.9%39,8495.0%561,33240.0%158,687
ResearchFHWA
FHWA
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration