Vulnerable Interstates

How well would we handle a disruption of the Interstate highway system? Unfortunately, nobody knows, but federal agencies are trying to find out. Prompted by recent intelligence reports suggesting that terrorist groups might target the nation's highways, a number of government programs are trying to put a dollar value on the Interstate highway system, pinpoint vulnerabilities and find protection strategies.

How well would we handle a disruption of the Interstate highway system? Unfortunately, nobody knows, but federal agencies are trying to find out.

Prompted by recent intelligence reports suggesting that terrorist groups might target the nation's highways, a number of government programs are trying to put a dollar value on the Interstate highway system, pinpoint vulnerabilities and find protection strategies.

“We know that terrorists are eyeing the Interstate highway system, because they know how important it is to our economy,” says one FBI official. “We can't protect the entire system — it's too massive — so the question becomes: Which parts do you protect and how do you do it?” He said state police have been alerted to keep underpasses free of trucks for fear of bombs.

“The Interstate highway system is a major contributor to why our nation has an economic lead in the world,” says Wendell Cox, whose Belleville, IN, consulting firm produced a report for the American Highway Users Alliance in conjunction with the system's 40th anniversary in 1996. He estimated that the system added about $14 billion annually to the economy, having peaked in 1970 at $38 billion. “I've no idea what that number would be today,” says Cox, “but I'm sure it's much higher.”

Like others, Cox looks at anecdotal estimates of the economic value of some Interstate highway sections to assess its importance.

For example, it's estimated that the cost to the economy of the recent I-40 bridge collapse due to an errant barge could be in the millions, not counting reconstruction expenses.

Oklahoma officials say the bridge handles about 7,000 trucks daily; they estimate that those going across the country will be detoured only 20 to 30 min. westbound and 45 min. to an hour eastbound. That means additional wages and fuel. FedEx Freight officials report that it has 35 daily schedules affected by the collapse of the I-40 bridge; detours will cost the company about $500 a day.

A more crucial Interstate section is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, crossing the Potomac River on I-95, which handles about 200,000 vehicles per day, including more than 17,000 heavy trucks. About 1.5 % of the nation's gross domestic product travels each year over the bridge by truck, according to a Dept. of Transportation estimate. “We're looking at the Wilson Bridge and similar critical sections of the Interstate highway system,” says the FBI official.

The Transportation Research Board has awarded a multi-year contract to SAIC, McLean, VA, to produce baseline research about transportation threats, response and recovery from terrorist attacks. Steve Lockwood of subcontractor Parsons, Brickenhoff, is looking at the cost to protect what he calls “critical highway assets,” mainly bridges over 20 ft. high, including those at interchanges. There are 780,000 such bridges.

“We're not going to name individual facilities,” says Lockwood, “but will name them by criteria such as the number of vehicles using the facility, how difficult it would be to replace it, and the ease of detouring around. This will give us an economic value of the asset and an idea of how to protect it.” His report will be presented this month.

The Interstate highway system's best feature lies in its resiliency. “It does not have the redundancy we would like,” says highway consultant Allen Pisarski, Falls Church, VA, “but when a road gets destroyed, we can often find ways to detour around it.” He and others say that longhaul drivers are less affected by detours, because they can plan alternate routes several states in advance; but local deliveries and shorthaul drivers can often be profoundly inconvenienced.

“Fortunately, our highway system is very dispersed,” adds Cox. “That dispersion is our greatest strength.”

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