The Little Things That are Holding Us Back

Editor’s note:  A few weeks ago, Jason wrote a piece in which he hypothesized that the biggest culprit behind Detroit’s woes was America’s beleaguered infrastructure, and how its highways just didn’t capture the imagination of a driving enthusiast the way Germany’s Autobahns do, for example.  Jason’s earlier article then talked to how Porsche and BMW can talk about how their vehicles are engineered for the Autobahn, while Buick, for example, cannot make that claim.  In his most recent piece below, Jason gives a specific example of the way our nation’s highway system sometimes does – and sometimes does not – meet the highest standards of highway design.

By Jason Lu

12.01.2008

As a young Lieutenant Colonel, Dwight David Eisenhower was faced with the mission of travelling from Washington D.C. to San Francisco with his convoy. It was not an easy task. Along the trail, bridges ruptured and had to be rebuilt while convoy transport struggled through mud and difficult terrain. Even with the help of local communities, the trip took nearly a two full months, from July 7th to September 6th, 1919. The mission was highly publicized and acted as an awareness campaign that called for better national transportation infrastructure. Twenty years later, Eisenhower, then Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force toured Germany where the Autobahn network caught his eye as a necessity of national defense and drove him to pursue an extreme overhaul of American transportation. “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.”

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, starting the largest and most impressive public works project in the history of the United States. The law called for $25 billion to be set aside for the construction of more than 41,000 miles of interstate highways, funded through newly enacted transportation-related taxes, including the gas tax.

Today, more than half a century later, Eisenhower’s ambition lives on. Based on 2004 numbers, The United States Interstate system is the world’s largest highway system at 46,837 miles. It has served as America’s backbone for more than four decades and has shaped what we call automobile transportation in just about every way imaginable. But something is missing. In fact, it’s not just something that’s missing. Something is wrong. Eisenhower provided us with an unprecedented transportation system, yet now we are no longer the leader when it comes to transportation innovation. Our highways are practical, no doubt about it, but we have been surpassed by other developed nations when it comes to quality.

To investigate what is holding the heels of our national highway infrastructure, I embarked on a little adventure. Washington State has some of the best stretches of highways that I have seen in America, so to identify the quality gap between modern American and European highways for myself, I had to observe arguably the best stretch of Washington interstate in person and decide for myself what is holding our highways back.

Westbound I-90 Milepost 18 to 13
To begin the trip, I started at I-90 near the Issaquah Highlands (milepost 18) and headed west. The first thing I noticed was the noise absorption wall. Normally on American highways, the noise absorption wall is just a massive concrete slab. In this case, the Washington State Department of Transportation took the time to include some artistic value, installing massive leaf imprints into the nice, dark-colored concrete. Surrounding the noise wall above is a very aesthetic landscape with neat rows of trees and bushes, which slopes down to meet a walking trail on the upper edge of the noise absorption wall. The picture shows the camera looking at the noise absorption wall while traveling eastbound.

Another component that caught my attention was that the asphalt road surface is very smooth, having been repaved back in 2005. The pavement markings are also relatively new, using what WSDOT calls “Profiled Pavement Markings”. Unlike usual paint, the markings are plastic that are laid down on the road and melted into the pavement. The meaning of “profiled” is that a special machine is used to raise sections of the markings to create bumps, which give a slight vibration when cars roll over them and warning drivers that they are deviating from their lane. Driving over the markings feels like driving over the usual Bots Dots (raised pavement markings), except Profiled Pavement Markings have higher durability and visibility, and carry twice the cost.

In addition to the Profiled Pavement Markings, WSDOT also does a very nice job with other safety features along this stretch of highway. Wide lanes and full shoulders are accompanied by consistent metal guardrails that span both sides of the road. In addition, I did not notice this while traveling, but after observing pictures, you can see that as the road curves, the roadbed tilts towards the direction of the turn for better traction, very much like what you see on German Autobahns and NASCAR tracks (although not quite as prominent). It comes to me as a surprise because on a lot of highway stretches, particularly I-405 and I-5, the roadbed actually tilts the wrong way and makes it feel as if your car is about to flip. Nevertheless, all the safety elements described here are especially crucial at this section of I-90, as the average travel speed is typically as much as 10mph above the posted limit of 60mph (100km/h). Of course, that is also because the speed limit posted just a half mile before this stretch was 70 mph. Did I mention that there are signs (with orange flags attached to the top) that say “Keep Right Except to Pass”?

The quality of I-90 though begins to decrease as you travel west. I-90 includes overpasses in three areas between milepost 18 and 15; one over Front Street, another over 224th Avenue, and the final over a stream. None of the overpasses, unfortunately, carries a smooth transition. The sudden jolts that the overpass joints give your car are quite rude awakenings after miles of silky-smooth pavement. It is weird though, since the overpasses in the eastbound direction are relatively smooth. The shiny metal crash barriers are also gone, and in their place are ones that are old, crooked, and brown-stained. There isn’t any more consistency to the barriers anymore either because suddenly the barriers become cable median barriers that were not even installed in a straight manner to begin with.

Then I arrived at the I-90 and SR900 interchange, one of the busiest interchanges on I-90. The road configuration here becomes confusing. As I travel into the interchange, there are three lanes (and there has always been three lanes since milepost 18), but suddenly the passing lane is donned with markings warning that the lane is about to change into a High-Occupancy Vehicle lane. The number of general purpose lanes then drops to two and passing lane drivers (who shouldn’t be there to begin with), begin merging into the middle lane. Middle lane drivers then are faced with two choices, either to slow down, or to merge into the right lane. Those who hit the brakes make those behind them brake harder to compensate and the chain reaction go on to create a slow-down in the middle lane. Drivers who merge into the right lane to avoid the slowdown cause the same braking-effect in the right lane. The real kicker is that while all this is happening, traffic is also entering I-90 from an on-ramp. Right lane drivers are then faced with merging vehicles from both the left and right side, forcing more slowdowns. Luckily, the on-ramp creates an add-on lane, so the number of general purpose lanes again turns to three. When it comes to road quality, it’s still relatively smooth. However, the uneven pavement of the overpass a few feet after traffic enters from the on-ramp feels like a giant stretched-out speed bump. Abruptly, the car lurches upwards at the start of the overpass and immediately jumps back down at the end.

After the craziness though, I was once again greeted with a nice stretch of roadway, with the exception of one final, but subtle bump about a quarter of a mile after the interchange. The pictures on the left and below show the eastbound stretch (I did not take pictures of the westbound stretch), but the westbound stretch looks more or less the same except it sits on lower terrain and does not carry an electronic display sign.

Traffic barriers are present, but are not always there on both sides. The sequence from the SR900 onramp goes like this: concrete barriers on the right, nothing on the left; concrete barriers become metal barriers on the right, while metal barriers on the left start a few hundred feet afterwards; metal barriers on the left then end after about a quarter of a mile while metal barriers on the right end a few hundred feet after that. Pretty soon there are no barriers at all on either side of the roadway.

Ending at milepost 14, I have gathered some observations from this great stretch of highway that I felt could be making it the quality underdog in the modern world. I found three main setbacks in this section of highway: Lack of Aesthetic Value, Corner Cutting and Minimal Necessities (doing only what’s needed). I also provide an example to go along with the setback.

Lack of Aesthetic Value and Corner Cutting: Barriers installed on this stretch appear to be uneven, which is a massive eyesore.

Lack of Aesthetic Value: The vegetation in the median look too clustered and disorganized. It’s a mix of dried grass, weed, and thorn bushes.

Minimal Necessities, Corner Cutting, and Lack of Aesthetic Value: Barriers are missing from some areas that have lower accident rates. First, does someone have to lose their life in an accident before a barrier is set up? Second, it’s uneven and horribly ugly. It’s like looking at a car with 1980s wood paneled doors on one side and plastic Saturn doors on the other. It practically underlines the fact that aesthetics are not important in American road design.

Corner Cutting:Paving on this stretch of I-90 was done by closing and paving one or two lanes at a time while traffic is diverted to the remaining lane(s). This technique is very practical for stretches with high-volume traffic, but may create pavement gaps between the lanes that were paved at different times. Over time, gaps that were not carefully addressed become bigger and will eventually turn into potholes. This is starting to become a problem on the right lane just before exit 13 at Lakemont Boulevard.

Minimal Necessities: The turning radius on this stretch can become quite small. Although the terrain is flat and the speed limit is only 60mph, sight distance still needs to be improved since the average speed is often higher than the posted limit. Why not design speed capacity into the highway to make higher-speeds safer?

None of those concerns I listed above appear in the stretch of German Autobahn shown below (photo credit RipleyLV from Skyscrapercity.com). Note the double metal guardrails, wide turning radius, surrounding vegetation and aesthetic qualities.

The stretch of I-90 I observed is no doubt a very good highway by itself. Some sections are even on-par with the aesthetic qualities of the Autobahn shown above. This stretch of I-90 is definitely comfortable and it’s great fun to drive on, but there are always little things here and there that prevent it from being great. Mainly though, it’s not that the United States doesn’t have the resources or the manpower to build world-class highways, but it’s because the general public doesn’t have the appreciation for perfection. Despite my complaints though, I love this stretch of highway and I thank WSDOT for making this stretch of I-90 the way it is now. If you are in Washington with some gas money to spare, I highly suggest taking your car out for a spin on I-90 between milepost 13 and 18, which I consider as one of the best stretches of highway in the United States.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Jason Lu

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