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U.S. highways showing their age


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In 1919, as a young Army colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower crossed the country in a military convoy -- 62 arduous days over desert sand, through rivers and on basic roads that crumbled beneath wheels, tipping vehicles over.

Eisenhower wrote that it was one of the worst experiences of his life.

Fittingly, 50 years ago this month, in 1956, President Eisenhower launched a drastic undertaking -- construction of the federal interstate highway system.

The highway web, now nearly 47,000 miles long, transformed American life, making it possible for families to travel throughout their vast country, and greatly boosting interstate shipping.

Today, however, that system is suffering from middle-age woes, transportation leaders say.

"Parts of it are wearing out," said Jennifer Gavin of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which includes California's Department of Transportation. "There is major reconstruction going on in big chunks."

With that in mind, and with AASHTO as sponsor, Eisenhower's great-grandson Merrill Eisenhower Atwater and several dozen others launched a cross-country convoy Friday in San Francisco, passing through Sacramento at midmorning. The convoy is following, in reverse, the general route Eisenhower and several hundred troops took in 1919.

The convoy will travel Interstate 80 to Washington, D.C., stopping at spots along the way to celebrate the 50th birthday of an economic marvel and to call attention to the growing challenge of maintaining that system.

The goal of the original 1919 expedition was to determine how hard it would be to mobilize troops in case of war.

"It was amazing," Atwater said Friday of that trek.

He recently read his great-grandfather's handwritten logs and learned that the soldiers repeatedly had to pull vehicles through sand near the Great Salt Lake; they often had to stop to fix wooden horse bridges that gave way under the weight of the military vehicles; and they had to ration drinking water in the desert.

"He was miserable," Atwater said of Eisenhower. "He said it was one of the worst experiences of his life."

Atwater spoke to the Bee on Friday via cell phone from an air-conditioned bus on Interstate 80, with a police escort clearing the traffic in advance.

It's easier going than his famous relative's experience, Atwater acknowledged. The day included box lunches in Kingvale, Calif., and a buffet in Reno, Nev., followed by a cocktail reception with hors d'oeuvres.

"We take the highway system for granted," said Atwater, a recent college graduate in Kansas City who has ambitions to be a U.S. senator. "The main focus of the convoy is to raise awareness and appreciation for the 50 years that we have had this."

But, transportation officials point out, the system is getting much heavier use than anticipated and hasn't had proper maintenance in some areas. The nation's transportation infrastructure, many say, including rail and bus services, faces an uncertain financial future.

The federal gas tax, a main revenue source nationally for transportation funds, appears no longer to be adequate, said AASHTO spokeswoman Gavin.

Congress recently established a commission to explore options for paying for highway and transit systems.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said Friday in a news release that the commission faces a "heavy burden."

"Nothing less than the future of the United States economy is at stake," he said in comments prepared for the convoy kickoff.

Gavin said her group is encouraging the commission to be open to a variety of possibilities, some of which could be controversial.

"It could be toll [roads], or restructuring the gas tax, or taxing [vehicles] by mileage they drive; who knows?" she said.

The commission is expected to report its findings and recommendations to Congress in July 2007.

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