A new riddle for you: when is an Interstate not an Interstate?
For decades, the criteria for designating new or improved roads as Interstate Highways were fairly straightforward. The Federal Highway Administration would certify “that the segment (a) is built to Interstate design standards and (b) connects to the existing Interstate System.” In short, Interstates had to be Inter-state.
But not any more. With the signing of MAP-21 last week, the law has been changed to do away with requirement (b) and allow disconnected pieces of floating “Interstate”—as long as the segment is “planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment” in the next 25 years.
This might seem like a strange, even absurd, tweak to make, especially as part of such a contentious bill. But the provenance of the language makes its purpose clear. The change in definition was initially written as a special exception for Interstate 69, the so-called “NAFTA Highway, which has been in the works for twenty years. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced matching bills last spring in their respective houses. Both are Republicans, but the entire Texas delegation supported the measure in lockstep.
Exceptions already existed to the standard Interstate designation. The non-contiguous states and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all have quasi-Interstates that were funded through the Interstate program despite the fact that they don’t meet the normal design criteria and, more obviously, will never connect to the rest of the system (unless we invade British Columbia and build some very impressive tunnels). But the new rule change is notable in that its reason for being is psychological, not geographical.
In practical terms, the relaxed criteria will allow Texas to erect Interstate 69 signs on about eighty miles of improved highway in the Lower Rio Grand Valley border region, despite the fact that these segments don’t actually connect to other Interstates. This new designation, local officials and businessmen believe, will enhance economic development opportunities, because developers, employers, and freight companies perceive an “Interstate” differently from a U.S. Highway, even if that U.S. Highway is built to Interstate standards.
This “Interstate” branding has been an obsession among the business community in the growing Lower Rio Grande Valley region, which bears the burden of being the largest metropolitan area in the country with no Interstate highway. Back in the mid-1990s, lobbyists for the Interstate 69 coalition (including Tom Delay’s brother Randy) won legislative approval to post “Future Interstate 69 Corridor” signs along U.S. 59, U.S. 281, and U.S. 77, from Texarkana through Houston and down to the Mexican Border.
The Interstate 69 project (about which I wrote a book) is the largest new construction project since the original interstate system, and has not been without controversy. Some states—such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are building Interstate 69 as a greenfield highway through untouched farms and forests. (And for about seven years, when Interstate 69 was part of Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor scheme, Texas was planning to do the same.) But other states—such as Kentucky and Texas—chose to upgrade existing highways to Interstate standards.
This is not the first time the rules have been changed to get Interstate 69 signs up faster. Last fall, the Federal Highway Administration made an exception and designated thirty-eight miles of the Western Kentucky Parkway as I-69, even though the road was not up to Interstate standards. Kentucky State Senator Dorsey Ridley told the Henderson Gleaner that the red white and blue signs held more magic than any actual roadwork could. “This will move economic development in a way people don’t realize,” he said “simply by putting up a shield called I-69.” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez agreed, saying in a statement that "these improvements will create jobs now and encourage development in the future."
It’s a sign of our times—pardon the pun—that our public servants hope to create jobs by rebranding roadways, and that a reauthorization bill that failed to increase funding for real physical transformations to our infrastructure nevertheless lowered standards to allow more superficial transformations.
Now if we can just get the definition of “High Speed” rail down to 45 mph...
Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.