Road to the future: Proponents behind TransAmerica Corridor seek to transform how America uses highways forever

A TransAmerica east-west corridor would connect the East and West Coasts of the United States. If built along the route pictured here, it will serve the largest north-south gap between already-existing east-west corridors in the country. It would allow local travelers to gain access to the rest of the country without a significant trek north or south for access to major corridors, and the local economy would see an influx of cash from construction of the corridor, as well as from travelers and surrounding new development once the corridor is complete.

Led by a group from Cape Girardeau, it's touted as "A versatile, multi-faceted, environmentally-friendly transportation corridor that will impact tomorrow." But will it happen? It's the beginning of a long process with at least two advantages: it makes sense, and the route is already approved as a "High Priority Corridor" by the US. Department of Transportation. But who will lead the charge? And can the country afford it?

As a young army officer in 1919 and then as commander of allied forces in World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed firsthand the economic and national security potential of highways. His first experience was as part of a more than 80-vehicle military convoy from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco on the country's first major transcontinental motor route. Due to difficulties in the terrain and a lack of stable pavement, the average distance covered during the trip: six miles per hour. Total time: 62 days.

In her article "In 1919, Eisenhower Suffered Through History's Worst Cross-Country Road Trip," journalist Sarah Laskow described the journey as "a terrible, torturous endeavor." According to official logs and photographs, vehicles regularly slid off the unstable roads, and in muddy or particularly sandy areas, it would take hours to right them. Eisenhower wrote about the experience in his journal, charting how arduous the trip was. It developed in him and others on the trip "a great sentiment for improving the highways," and a recognized need, according to the official report, that "transcontinental highways should be constructed and maintained by the Federal Government."

During World War II, Eisenhower witnessed the opposite of the road system in the United States. He fought against and then exploited the power of the German autobahn, a network of four-lane superhighways that enabled cars and military vehicles to speed great distances in little time. In his post-presidential book, "At Ease," Eisenhower wrote: "The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land ... This was one of the things that I felt deeply about, and I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit by it."

Today, thanks to his championing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, President Eisenhower is known as "The Father of the Interstate System." The Act, which originally envisioned a 41,000-mile network of smooth, wide, fast and intersection-free superhighways -- that now includes more than 46,700 miles of roads -- promised to reimburse states for 90% of the cost of construction.

According to Kenneth P. Jackson, a Columbia University history professor quoted in an sfgate.com article by Michael Cabanatuan, "The interstate system was the most important public works project in United States history. It has made life and travel easier for tens of millions of Americans. You can drive New York to Memphis without hitting a red light."

Not only did it make it easier for average Americans to drive, interstates also made it faster and cheaper for businesses to move goods around the nation, wrote Cabanatuan.

According to Dan McNichol, author of "The Roads that Built America," the interstate boom also brought an economic boom, particularly for the highway construction, oil and automotive industries, and it developed new opportunities for tourism, the growth of fast food outlets, national motel chains and business districts "even in the middle of nowhere," wrote Cabanatuan.

"Commerce is the biggest impact the interstate system had," McNichol said. "Mostly trucking, but also where businesses and shopping centers are located -- near the interstate. The system is central to shipping and receiving, and growing even more so."

Few of the material luxuries we are accustomed to in America -- from fresh fruit in the winter to stores full of inexpensive clothing -- would be possible without highways. Indeed, in the history of the United States, Eisenhower's vision and commitment transformed the very essence of the nation, accelerating America's economic development after World War II to become the economic superpower it is today.

But where does the interstate system go in the future? And is there a new Eisenhower, a visionary champion, to lead the way? A group of business leaders in Cape Girardeau with allies growing across the nation are offering some answers.

This article will walk you through how a hard-fought but languishing idea to create a new interstate through an area of the country without east-west access has transitioned into something more significant: a proposal for a "Twenty-First Century highway" geared toward the future.

The Context

Anyone who has driven from St. Louis to Kansas City on Interstate 70 knows how bad driving much of the country's highways has become. Truck traffic well above what was originally anticipated clogs the roads, creating anxious driving conditions and wearing out the pavement with heavy loads. Commercial development around much of the interstate system leaves little to no room for expansion.

A headline about interstate travel in Southern California on public radio KPCC's website is not unusual: "Big rigs, big risks: As SoCal economy improves, truck traffic is rising, and so are crashes."

Meanwhile, the very nature of travel and freight are changing. Environmentally-friendly electric vehicles -- with the need for electric charging -- represent the future. Self-driving autonomous vehicles -- including trucks, where there is a growing shortage of drivers -- are in testing. These new forms of technology have special requirements to work best and safest. For example: signs designed for machine reading in addition to human sight and road markings or other directional signals potentially embedded in the pavement, optimized for driverless systems.

Dedicated lanes -- or even highways -- for autonomous vehicles also open up a myriad of possibilities for higher speeds, narrower lanes, automatic-charging technology and "platooning," where vehicles communicate with each other to enhance efficiency and safety. Moving heavy freight away from mixed-use lanes to a dedicated corridor also allows more cost-effective construction of the pavement itself. "Light" cars -- in contrast to heavy semi-trucks -- don't have the same pavement requirements, saving billions of dollars in construction and maintenance.

Freight has already been revolutionized in the past several decades with the dominance of container shipping, where products from around the world are more easily moved through different combinations of ship and train transportation, but always needing trucking at some point -- if not for the bulk of the domestic journey. While bold visionaries like SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk promote "hyperloop" technology to connect major, nearby cities to cut travel time for humans, the main engine of the economy -- transcontinental trade -- rumbles uneasily on overused roads that are expensive to maintain and difficult to retrofit. Some futurists advocate turning medians between already overloaded, divided interstates into high-tech transportation corridors, but on a practical basis, that's complicated -- and incredibly expensive. It also removes the safety feature for which divided highways were originally designed.

What's really needed, says a group of Cape Girardeau business leaders, is a new east-west transportation corridor constructed to optimize future technology. This corridor, touted as a "Twenty-First Century highway" would benefit existing east-west interstates by shifting part of their load, lessening congestion, lowering maintenance costs and creating a safer driving experience for all. But by building it with future technology in mind, it would also create new efficiencies for travel, particularly for freight. And by building it where the TransAmerica Coordinator has already been identified through often rural countryside, acquisition by eminent domain is more amenable. That fact enables the opportunity for a newly-built corridor to provide space for other uses, including water and natural gas pipelines, a North American electric supergrid and potentially, even freight high-speed rail.

Who are these business leaders?

Local business leaders (from left) Walt Wildman, Earl Norman and Kelly Green, along with John Mehner (not pictured) are leading the charge in proposing and advocating for the TransAmerica Corridor, or “Twenty-First Century highway.”

This story could delve deeply into the history of how a group of Cape Girardeau business leaders, starting 30 years ago, led what became a successful national effort by municipalities from Virginia to California to gain designation for a new interstate highway. Its biggest backer, Earl Norman, an active philanthropist who retired as founder of a medical supply company that trucked product around the nation, never hesitates to share his perspective, which usually comes along with folders of press clippings from the 1950s through today. Norman, now in his 80s, carries a grudge about how political horse-trading between four governors in 1963 led to Cape Girardeau being excluded from an east-west corridor and lost a previously identified direct connection to Interstate 24 in Paducah, Kentucky. But the history is largely beside the point, except for two facts.

First, Norman's study of the U.S. interstate system identified a path across the middle of the country that was underserved by existing east-west corridors. Second, his efforts to right what he believed an egregious wrong found allies across the nation -- more than 50 cities and Indian reservations signed on -- and their efforts together led to the designation of the corridor as a priority in the national highway plan. Unfortunately, without funding, that's where the project has languished for more than two decades.

Norman gave up hope until he started reading stories in The Wall Street Journal about wind farmers who had trouble moving their electricity east or about western agricultural areas needing water while there was plenty of it in the Midwest. He began thinking about how the corridor could transport much more than cars and trucks. Then, electric cars and the whole autonomous vehicle wave began to hit. Long-time Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner, who had started a study group on future infrastructure, jumped on board. And a talented former city engineer named Kelly Green, who had started her own consulting firm KLG Engineering, was hired to flesh out the idea. Together, they began meeting, bringing in some of the original gang that had led to the highway designation decades before, including local businessman and former lobbyist Walt Wildman. Some of the principles at the innovation center Codefi also became involved.

The group believed they had a big idea -- one that was no longer largely about parochial interests, but something that could be vital to the country as a whole. The corridor, in Norman's eyes, could also enhance national security by providing more protected redundancy to the Panama Canal. Above all, they realized, they weren't experts in specific engineering details. They could paint a picture of possibilities, but the federal government would need to take it forward, and ultimately it would demand a visionary leader to champion it.

Mehner, Norman, Green and Wildman admit they are at the beginning of what could be a long process. Mehner describes any construction as being maybe 25 years away. Norman disagrees, believing that if the right leaders get on board, construction could start within 10 years, maybe faster.

They are starting to meet with Congressional leaders -- staff with Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was a first stop -- to share their idea and seek support. Norman, in particular, is aware of all the political power along the route, though he insists he can't be involved as much as he was originally: "At my age, I don't need to be involved day-to-day."

This month, they launched a website created by Green, which makes their case: transamericacorridor.com.

Wildman suggests that it won't be easy, but making contacts this time won't be as time consuming. Video conferencing, for one, speeds up the process. Meanwhile, Green will be providing the first point of contact for those who investigate the website.

Cost may be the impossible hurdle, especially for a country trillions of dollars in debt. But without a long-term plan, the status quo around highways will only lead to decline, argues Mehner. Somewhere along the line, significant infrastructure investment will be necessary. The question is how best to make it, and how to get private industry to participate. The trucking industry stands to gain immensely, cutting out considerable existing costs while speeding up deliveries, which benefits those who ship. Auto companies -- especially truck makers -- also benefit.

What the Cape group really seeks is a champion at the federal level -- someone who can see the future, similar to how Eisenhower did 100 years ago. For some of them -- particularly Mehner -- where the route goes is less important than national leaders getting serious and beginning to invest in infrastructure more aggressively. China is not bashful about its infrastructure investment; America risks falling behind. Norman would agree to a point -- and that's to say that a corridor is already ready, studied and approved, if there's a leader strong enough, visionary enough, to embrace it.


The plan

Go to transamericacorridor.com for more information. Here are excerpts:

Setting a New Standard for Transportation

America is desperately in need of a new transportation corridor to fit the needs of the 21st Century. The Transamerica Corridor is the solution. It's not a highway. It's a multi-faceted corridor that will set the new standard for how we transport people, freight and even energy from coast to coast with minimal environmental impact. The corridor will provide jobs, modern transportation and better infrastructure on both local and nationwide levels.

The New Mother Road

The Transamerica Corridor incorporates five major elements, including high speed freight rail, intelligent highway design, an electrical transmission conduit utilizing green technologies, a natural gas pipeline and a water pipeline to serve arid areas of the southwestern United States. As the spine of the new standard of transportation, the Transamerica Corridor will redefine how we move people, goods and resources both across the country and around the world while minimizing damage to the environment.

North American Supergrid

An underground electrical conduit for western wind and solar energy that would achieve an 80% reduction in power-sector carbon emissions and also bring about the added benefit of protecting the outdated electric grid for the entire United States.

High-Speed Freight Rail

A high-speed freight rail system would assist in opening up new ports and would move freight from the current port system into the United States at much more rapid speeds.

21st Century Highway Corridor

A new highway corridor would have the benefit of helping the nation adjust to driverless cars and trucks at significantly lower costs than modifying our present highway system.

Natural Gas Pipeline

A natural gas transmission pipeline would allow the nation to market worldwide natural gas products, alleviating tensions between governments and reducing air pollution.

Water and Other Resource Pipeline

A resource pipeline, such as water and broadband, would open up significant parts of the western United States for development, which would eliminate overcrowding as our population grows on each coast.

Connecting Country and Globe

The Transamerica Corridor won't just connect our east and west coast. It will also connect the European and Asian Rim markets, creating more opportunities for global trade and transport.

What is the Transamerica Corridor?

America is desperately in need of a new transportation corridor to fit the needs of the 21st century. Since the last major infrastructure program was developed, the population of this country has more than doubled, and the increase of imports and exports has been dramatic. Yet, we still have the same inadequate railroad corridors that were developed in the 19th Century and the same interstate system that was developed during the 1950s.

Why Build the Corridor Here?

Building a new corridor will be more economical, more efficient and create greater impact than attempting to retrofit an already-existing corridor. It will serve the largest north-south gap between already-existing east-west corridors in the country. It will serve as a release valve for other, already-congested corridors. It will relieve an underserved market, whereas building farther north or south will be wasted on areas of the country that already have adequate access to east-west corridors.

Who Benefits from the Corridor?

Local travelers gain access to the rest of the country without a significant trek north or south for access to major corridors. Travelers nationwide will experience less traffic and safer roadways as the new corridor relieves congestion. The local economy will see an influx of cash from construction of the corridor, as well as from travelers and surrounding new development once the corridor is complete. The entire nation can benefit from new, state-of-the-art infrastructure for better transportation of people, goods and resources.

Funding

Several revenue sources may be utilized to provide funding for this 21st-Century solution. Estimates show that trillions of dollars in overseas profits are held by United States multinational companies. In the past, tax exemptions have been offered in an effort to repatriate these monies. Additionally, efforts such as Build America Bonds have been very successful in encouraging investment in infrastructure projects. A marriage of these efforts whereby exemptions are allowed for the repatriation of foreign profits that are invested in vehicles such as Build America Bonds could provide a stable source of revenue for construction of projects such as the Transamerica Corridor. Also, private enterprises such as companies involved in railroads, electric, gas and water pipelines, as well as those operating recharging stations for electric vehicles could invest in this project.

The President's budget called for a robust investment in transportation infrastructure. Included in the budget was the establishment of a National Transportation Bank. As a multi-state mega-project, the Transamerica Corridor Project is the perfect pilot project for this funding category and is already listed at No. 3 on the U.S. Department of Transportation's list of High Priority Corridors.

Summary

A well thought-out and developed national corridor constructed in the early years of the 21st Century would do much to improve our country. The Transamerica Corridor has significant benefits for our country and the world as a whole and should become a major part of our strategy for national development in future years.