James Bond, secret agent, man of mystery, world traveler. Bond traverses the globe foiling devious plots from evil masterminds in the service of the Queen. To support his missions, his tech-savvy colleague Q equips him with fantastic gadgets. He has a watch that shoots lasers, a pen that shoots lasers, and a belt buckle that shoots lasers. Anything is possible.
One of his most notable gadgets is his car, a modified Aston Martin. But a car is only as good as the road it drives on, which leads us to his final secret weapon, The Interstate Highway System.
While Bond’s travels took him to far-flung, exotic places, today I want to write about the secret weapon we all have access to here in the United States. It transformed the way Americans live, it strengthened the U.S. economy, but unfortunately, it is facing an existential crisis.
The idea for a supercharged network of cross-country roads came from President Dwight D. Eisenhower after his own miserable experience traversing the country in a staggeringly slow 62-day trip, as well as his experience with the German Autobahn network in World War 2. The Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense highways, was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the same year that the Bond novel Diamonds are Forever was published.
While most secret gadgets are small and compact, the interstate highway system is over 48 thousand miles long. This is enough to (almost) circle the entire earth twice, making it larger than any other known secret spy gadget. The centrally managed construction created a logically ordered country-spanning network. Even numbers run east to west, odd numbers run north to south. Additionally, interstates have no at-grade road crossings, no stop signs or stop lights, and have limited on and off ramps. These small changes give cars the superpower to travel at greater speeds with fewer interruptions while also improving passenger safety. This increased speed transformed the average American way of life. The use of trains decreased dramatically. Interstates allowed for the suburbs to emerge, enabling workers (including spies) to live outside the city and commute into the city each day.
Beyond transporting people, the key benefit of the interstate system is its ability to rapidly move goods from point A to point B. They are literally the groundwork enabling commercial growth making the interstates the secret weapon of the economy. James Bond helps the U.K.’s MI6, the interstates help the U.S0.’s GDP. Everyday almost everything we eat, buy, or use is transported via Interstate highway at some point. In 2015 the department of transportation reported that 10 billion tons of freight was moved on roads. It also enabled domestic and foreign tourism creating demand for gas stations, motels, restaurants and most importantly, roadside tourist traps including the biggest ball of twine, carhenge (a stone henge made of cars), and the Spam museum.
These are monumental benefits, but James Bond always had Q to ensure his gadgets were always tip top shape. The U.S. has an army of Q’s constantly repairing our roads, but despite their best efforts, they continue to crumble faster than they can be mended. The federal highway system is funded, in large part, by a tax on gasoline. This tax currently sits at 18.4 cents per gallon, which is not a lot. The last gasoline tax increase was made by president Clinton in 1993. As a result, revenues have not been adequate since 2008 and billions of dollars of projects go unfunded every year. In 2017, The Infrastructure Report Card gave America’s road infrastructure a D. Imagine if James Bond was still getting paid a 1993 salary in 2021. That doesn’t buy many martinis. The gas tax should be raised. Alternatively, the federal government could devise another means to raise revenues to hire more Q’s to maintain our beloved interstate highways.
Now, an argument could be made that we shouldn’t fix the roads at all if they are being used by international spies. However, I would contend that we all need these roads. As described above, they are a fundamental part of American life, they are critical for our economic infrastructure, and despite their flaws, they should be saved from this crisis. The Interstate Highway System is a secret weapon that millions of Americans use use everyday, even if it does help a few pesky spies.
This post was adapted from a seven-minute speech presented at a Toastmasters club.