Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.
Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.
More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.
Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.
In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.
Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.
It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.
“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.