America’s highway system, more than 200,000 miles of freeways and bridges, is the largest infrastructure project in the world. It’s a feat of engineering that laid the foundation for decades of economic growth and prosperity.
By now, it’s also become a cliché to point out that it’s falling apart. In fact, the massive size of the highway systems is also its weak link. We built it, we’re dependent on it, and like all things made by man, now it is breaking, crumbling, and in some cases, falling down.
Back in 1932, the United States was suffering through the Great Depression, and its love affair with cars was just starting.
Just north of Newark, New Jersey, the Pulaski Skyway became the country’s first so-called “superhighway” — a 3.5-mile raised roadway running over the top of some of the most heavily industrialized property in the country.
Even if you’ve never heard of the Pulaski, you’ve probably seen it — the skyway looms in the background during the opening credits of "The Sopranos." In the early 1930s, the only people who knew how to build something this big were railroad engineers, and that's why the skyway looks like a railroad bridge, complete with steel trusses, rivets and cantilevers. It's also 80 years old and falling apart.
“There were pieces of steel that literally looked like Swiss cheese," says Stephen Schapiro, director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. "The holes in it were bigger than your head.”
Construction teams are completing a two-year, $1.2 billion rehabilitation of the Pulaski’s concrete deck and steel cross braces.
“The steel just flakes off. You can go to it and just peel a piece of steel off because it's rusted, deteriorated, and that's why it's being redone,” Schapiro explains.
The Pulaski Skyway under construction.
In infrastructure terms, the Pulaski is what’s called “functionally obsolete,” meaning it doesn’t meet modern design standards —and the money being spent to fix it up won’t change that.The skyway carries about 70,000 cars per day. Trucks however, were banned only two years after the skyway opened, because its narrow lanes and steep off-ramps were too dangerous. The Pulaski Skyway is bound by Newark International Airport on one end and the Holland Tunnel on the other. In between are continuous factories, warehouses and rail yards, as well as the ports of Newark and Elizabeth. It is some of the most built-up infrastructure anywhere.
But its not like New Jersey could just knock it down and start over.
“We don't have the space to build out new highways like they do in Texas or the Midwest, where they can just build more lanes. We can't do that here," Schapiro says. "We have to work with what we've got.”
In other words, having built it, we’re locked in. It’s a system of diminishing returns in which more money is spent repairing old infrastructure that delivers less-than-optimal results while still adding hours to commutes.
Bryan Higgins lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and commutes daily to Newark. Normally, he takes the skyway both ways, but with the northbound lanes closed for construction, he has to find an alternate route home — which can easily double or triple his driving time.
“Going home is where there's issues, especially as they continue to do construction on this route we're taking home now,” Higgins says as he drives toward Hoboken. “If they close down a lane on it now, we're looking at what goes roughly a 35 minute commute, it puts it an hour and 15 minutes easily."
Higgins’ commute underscores a key point about highways in America: that even in a place as urbanized as northern Jersey, with public transit available, most people still drive to work.
“In this region, four out of five people drive to work, most people drive to work. In New Jersey it's over 90 percent,” says Richard Barone, director of transportation for the Regional Plan Association, a policy group based in New York City.
An archival photo of the Pulaski Skyway.
But Barone says that can’t go on forever, because there isn’t enough money to maintain everything that's been built. Priority should be given to infrastructure that gives the most return on our investment, and that may mean fewer highways, he says. He says this situation is true among urban areas across the country; cars are still the way people get to work.
“You know, we're entering a phase where we have to make tough decisions, and the idea of removing a link from the network, especially the highway network, is very unpopular,” Barone says. The golden age of freeway building is starting to wane, he says, they cost too much and as soon as they are built, they start breaking down.
“It’s just reached the end of its useful life," says Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "A lot of it was just engineered to last for a certain number of decades, to accommodate a certain number of drivers, and we've blown way past a lot of those indicators in some areas.”
Puentes says the U.S. will never be able to build its way out of its infrastructure challenge. Even if it did have enough money to fix everything, there would still be gridlock, dangerous roads and, likely, wasted economic opportunities.
One way to change that prospect is to think about the future of highways as being driven by trucks. “We move an enormous amount of goods in this country, 77 percent of which cross state lines, which really is the definition of interstate commerce," Puentes says.
The rapid growth of the e-commerce economy and the prospect of technology that includes, among other things, driverless trucks, means freight may soon compete for a greater share of the roadway.
“So when we think about how this nation has grown in the past, and the role of the interstates, maybe the new era is going to be a lot around freight and good movement," he says.
Many of those goods arrive here by ship and are then unloaded at New Jersey shipping terminals.
“We see a 3 to 5 percent growth every year,” says Jeff Bader, president of the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers.
Much of that freight, Bader says, is funneled onto roadways that weren’t designed with trucks in mind.
“I mean, we have trucks that are 53 to 54 feet long that cannot accommodate some of the roadways to make the turns," he says.
A 1940s postcard from Mayrose Company.
"They're putting billions of dollars into it now to make it more roadworthy for commuter vehicles," he says. "You look down underneath the Pulaski Skyway. The truck route 1 and 9, which is the sister bridge to it, is antiquated. It needs to be modernized and upgraded too."And remember, the Pulaski can’t carry any trucks. Even when freight can be moved by rail, Bader says, that last mile will always involve trucks. He says the money being spent on the skyway, the biggest infrastructure project in the state of New Jersey, should have been put toward infrastructure that is more critical to the regional economy.
The Port of New York and New Jersey is spending $6 billion to improve its harbor and shipping terminals in preparation for the completion of the Panama Canal expansion next spring. That’s when so-called “super cargo” ships will start sailing into New York Harbor, delivering even more containers, which will then be funneled onto increasingly crowded, outdated, highways.
Marketplace is teaming up with Waze to look at transportation infrastructure across the U.S. Click here to find out how you can be a part of our series and report bad infrastructure on your own commute.
Correction June 16, 2015: This story originally misstated Robert Puentes' first name.