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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 4 > The National Highway System: A Commitment to America's Future

Spring 1996
Vol. 59· No. 4

The National Highway System: A Commitment to America's Future

by Rodney E. Slater

The National Highway System (NHS) improves access to work and markets.In the transportation field, we conduct our business - and often measure our success - using tangible elements like concrete, asphalt, and steel. Yet, transportation is really about something equally vital: people.

Transportation is about people and how they go about their daily lives, how they get to work, how they get to market, how they get their children to school, how they get to visit family and friends, and how they pursue happiness.

At the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), we are committed to providing a safe, modern, and efficient transportation system to serve the American people. The National Highway System (NHS) is the centerpiece of that effort.

As the cornerstone of tomorrow's highway network, NHS will function as the backbone of our nation's 21st century transportation system. As a key component of President Clinton's initiative to rebuild America, NHS will help provide the means for our nation to remain strong and prosperous.

NHS Facts

About 98 percent of all roads in NHS have been built. The 256,000 kilometers (km) of NHS include only 4 percent of the nation's roads, but they carry more than 40 percent of all highway traffic, 75 percent of heavy truck traffic, and 90 percent of tourist traffic.

For the last four decades, the Interstate Highway System has helped America's economy flourish and its people thrive. Now, as we enter the post-interstate highway era, the United States needs a transportation system that will sustain our economic strength and enhance our competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Since the beginning of interstate highway construction in 1956, our population has grown and shifted, our economy has changed, and our needs as a nation have evolved. To meet these demands and to extend the benefits of the Interstate Highway System to areas that are not served directly by it, we responded to the mandate of Congress and developed the concept of a national highway system as a way of focusing federal resources on the nation's most important roads. In 1995, Congress approved NHS. As a result, America can move forward.

The NHS map.

The development of NHS was truly a grassroots effort. Although the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) provided that certain key routes, such as the Interstate Highway System, be included in NHS, most of NHS was not specified. So, we worked closely with our state and local partners, such as transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations, to identify key routes. They, after all, know best how their roads function and how these roads fit into their overall transportation plans. We also worked with the private sector and our colleagues in the other agencies of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Beyond the interstates, the NHS consists of two-lane roads.We also made it clear that NHS is not another system of interstate highways. In fact, beyond the interstate segment, NHS consists mostly of existing two-lane roads, and about 98 percent of all roads in NHS already have been built. Yet those roads are vital. The 256,000 kilometers (km) of NHS include only 4 percent of the nationfs roads, but they carry more than 40 percent of all highway traffic, 75 percent of heavy truck traffic, and 90 percent of tourist traffic.

The advantage of NHS is that it encourages states to focus on a limited number of high-priority routes and to concentrate on improving them with federal-aid funds. At the same time, the states can incorporate design and construction improvements that address their traffic needs safely and efficiently.

With NHS, states can choose from a range of improvements. They can make operational changes, such as a program to locate and remove stalled vehicles that are impeding smooth traffic flow. States can employ available technological improvements, such as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which will help reduce congestion and keep traffic moving without major, roadway expansion.

NHS also will help us meet the challenges of global economic competititon by enhancing our different modes of transportation, increasing Americafs productivity, and bolstering its economy.

NHS links 190 rail/truck terminals to markets.Our transportation infrastructure no longer can be a collection of individual modes competing with one another. Instead, it must be a unified system with each mode complementing the others. Increasingly, intermodal carriers rely on all forms of transportation to deliver goods and services to consumers in the most efficient manner possible. NHS fulfills that goal by serving 198 ports, 207 airports, 67 Amtrak stations, 190 rail/truck terminals, 82 intercity bus terminals, 307 public transit stations, 37 ferry terminals, 58 pipeline terminals, and 20 multipurpose passenger terminals. By providing these essential linkages to other modes, NHS creates a seamless transportation system for the rapid movement of people and products.

NHS reaches virtually every part of our country. About 90 percent of America's population lives within 8 km of an NHS road. All urban areas with a population of more than 50,000 and 93 percent with a population of between 5,000 and 50,000 are within 8 km of an NHS road. Counties that contain NHS highways also host 99 percent of all jobs in our nation, including 99 percent of manufacturing jobs, 97 percent of mining jobs, and 93 percent of agricultural jobs.

By investing in NHS, we provide virtually every American with improved access to work and to market. This enhances the ability of our transportation system to sustain economic growth and help our nation thrive in the increasingly competitive international marketplace.

In addition, NHS will help us confront the problems of traffic congestion by targeting current and projected bottlenecks. Whether you are a shipper living by the principle that time is money or a commuter trying to get to and from work with a minimum of difficulty, congestion is an economic drain. The estimated economic loss due to congestion in our major urban areas is $40 billion a year. NHS will help relieve that tremendous burden, increasing economic efficiency and improving the quality of life for all of us.

NHS consists of five parts. The first component is the almost 70,000-km Interstate Highway System, which accounts for almost 30 percent of NHS.

The second component includes 21 congressionally designated high-priority corridors as identified in ISTEA. These corridors total 7,200 km.

The third component is the non-interstate portion of the Strategic Highway Corridor Network, or STRAHNET, identified by the Department of Defense in cooperation with DOT. It totals about 25,000 km. These corridors and the interstate highways are critical strategic links. Operation Desert Storm demonstrated again that the ability to move troops and equipment via highways to airports, ports, rail terminals, and other bases for rapid deployment is essential to our national defense.

Critical to military troop and equipment mobility.The fourth component is major Strategic Highway Corridor Network connectors. They consist of more than 3,000 km 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 about 112,000 km or roughly 43 percent of the system. The fifth component is the rest of the system - about 148,000 km of important arterial highways that serve interstate and interregional travel and that provide connections to major ports, airports, public transportation facilities, and other intermodal facilities.

As part of the NHS legislation that Congress approved last year, the secretary of transportation has the authority to modify the network, at the request of the states, to meet changing conditions and requirements.

Three years ago, FHWA celebrated its 100th anniversary. We began in 1893 as the Office of Road Inquiry, headed by General Roy Stone, a Civil War hero who fought at Gettysburg. With limited resources and a small staff, General Stone nevertheless established a commitment to partnerships, mobility, and technology. These enduring qualities remain the foundation of our success. Today, after a century of service to the American people, we have taken the next historic step in what General Stone called "a peaceful campaign of progress and reform."

"Good roads," said General Stone, "are the highways to wealth."

President Eisenhower and Congress shared his vision when they put in motion the greatest public works project in history, the Interstate Highway System. Today, as we heed President Clinton's call to rebuild America, the National Highway System will help us continue on a march of progress that has helped make the United States the most mobile nation in history.

Rodney E. Slater is the federal highway administrator. He was sworn in as FHWA chief on June 16, 1993. He was formerly the chairman of the Arkansas State Highway Commission and a member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Executive Committee of Commissions and Boards. Earlier, he served as assistant attorney general for Arkansas, and he was a key member of then Governor Clinton's staff, serving as executive assistant for economic and community programs. He graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law.

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