How much has this nation spent on highways & roads since 1945?

I’m talking about all federal, state and local efforts. Not just the actual construction of the roads, but also repairs, snowplowing, maintenance, landscaping, everything.

I would guess that if you added up the costs to build, repair & maintain all streets, highways and vehicular bridges nationwide, including at the federal, state and local levels, since the end of WWII, it would dwarf the amount that this country has spent on both national defense and all entitlements combined. I understand that Eisenhower originally sold the Interstate Highway System as a defense project, but I am separating the Interstate Highways from traditional defense spending.

I have attempted to search the internet in an effort to quantify this amount of public expenditure, but the answer remains elusive. The amount must be mind boggling.

Any educated guesses?

Interesting question, and I’d like the answer.

My gut instinct, however, is the opposite. I would have guessed that highway construction would have been dwarfed by “national defense and all entitlements” especially if you considered the Marshall Plan and other global spending.

And, just to compare it with the subsidies of other forms of transportation, how much of that has been offset by user fees (tolls, etc.)?

I think if you’re just comparing funding on the national level, surely defense spending is far greater than highway spending. However, every state has a DOT and virtually every municipality from large cities to tiny rural outposts has some kind of highway department. I think when you add in all of that, the cost of funding all roads in the U.S. would at least rival national defense spending.

Most money is spent by states so you would have to gather that info by state.

Here in NC the gas tax revenue can’t really keep up with the needs so they have started building toll roads, the first one will be open a few miles from my house in 2012. One reason is we are a fast growing state, I believe other states without toll roads are also looking into tolls.

The currently proposed 2010 budget for the California Department of Transportation (just highways) is $13B. The 2010 highways budget for the Wyoming Department of Transportation is about $215M.

The currently proposed 2010 budget for the Department of Defense is $660B.

Doesn’t answer the question, but I figured that provides a sense of scale.

Which nation?


The one that Eisenhower was president of. Sorry for not clarifying that.

I found quite a bit of data for many state highway budgets, but tracking down all of the county and municipal budgets would be a herculean task that is beyond my capacity. I get the feeling that this is where a good deal of the spending occurs. You have traffic signals, signage, street sweeping, snow removal, re-paving, pothole filling, streetlights, staffing and labor plus untold political patronage positions and inflated costs due to sweetheart deals with favored contracts. There are probably other things I can’t even think of that contribute to the cost. Mostly funded by property and sales taxes, I would assume.

Dwight Eisenhower?

Yes. Dwight DAVID Eisenhower.

In some states like here in NC the vast majority of road money is spent at the state level but I know that varies by state. We have many local roads that are state built and maintained. I would think states would compile all the road money spent in their state but it may not be on a website.

Herculean, and nigh impossible to figure out. For example, in our city the “streets” budget is combined with the “drainage” budget; you’d have to add up expenditures line-by-line to begin to get a handle on it; then you also have staff whose jobs cover other things including streets (Public Works Director, for example).

In sparsely populated areas these budgets aren’t going to be very large; for example, in counties where the majority of roads are gravel (no expense for paving, just grading).

I highly doubt that corruption accounts for very much of the total amount.

That would depend upon the entity (state, county, city, etc.)

Here’s some pertinent information I found on the American Road & Transportation Builders’ Association (ARTBA) site. They had mostly Federal information, but some info also on state & local, plus some links to other sites.

From here.

Looks like you could check the FHWA website for information on the state & local stuff.

On the topic of maintenance, interstates in the US are built with less concrete than the autobahns in Germany so they wear out faster. It might be cheaper in the long run to spend more money up front, I wonder if anyone has looked into that.

Certainly a good portion of design is “about the money”. Most of the time, you design something that the government can afford. Long-term costs as well as initial costs are looked at.

Something else: design of the traveling surface is going to be different in different parts of the U.S. due to soil conditions. In the South, for example, large portions of the Interstate are asphaltic concrete.

I spent a lovely evening aggregating the statistical tables found at the USDOT website for Highway Statistics Publications.

The answer is that approximately $3.5 trillion has been spent—by all levels of government—on highways, roads, and local streets since 1945. This figure is supposed to represent all construction, maintenance, traffic services, and highway law enforcement. Of that $3.5 trillion, roughly $2.2 trillion came from user revenues such as tolls and excise taxes on fuel and tires. So the total net public expenditures for roads from 1945-2009 is $1.3 trillion.

A common misconception. Establishment of the Interstate System had virtually nothing to do with military needs or civil defense. The roots date to 1939 (the Bureau of Public Roads report Toll Roads and Free Roads) but what we know as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was funded in the 1956 Federal Highway Act. At the time it was promoted solely as a job-creation and commerce-promotion project. Military officials testified that they had no particular needs beyond those of a good civilian system. The word Defense wasn’t even added until the bill was in conference committee.

See Rose, Mark H.* Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939-1989* Rev. ed. 1990, Univ. of Tennessee Press.

Wow, that’s awesome. Thanks!

In comparison, $1.3 trillion is about 1 years worth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or about 2 years worth of military spending.

Or, we have spent $3.7 trillion on defense from 2003 to 2009.