Time to tackle American roads named for confederate heroes

Time to tackle American roads named for confederate heroes
© Getty Images

The process of removing the honors bestowed on those who fought for the confederacy and the cause of slavery has at last kicked into high gear. Localities have renamed public facilities and removed the monuments to those who betrayed the United States. A great many of these decisions to remove confederate symbols must get made at the state and local levels. This should happen quickly, however, a mix of inertia and resistance will stop it from moving forward right away. But Congress should influence one major set of decisions, which are the names of major roads.

While state and local entities maintain most roads, a significant share of funding and some degree of control over major highways comprising the National Highway System does fall under the federal government. This network spanning 161,000 miles includes the Interstate Highway System and roads that connect rail and air terminals or serve defense purposes. While it comprises only 4 percent of total highway miles, the National Highway System carries about 40 percent of all traffic and is involved in nearly all movements of mail, goods, and travelers. These are the main streets whose names can represent a key part of community identity. 

When it comes to the National Highway System and its parts, Congress has a long history of setting standards. It has banned most billboards on the Interstate Highway System, set the defunct 55 miles per hour national speed limit, and used its control over funding to convince states to set the drinking age at 21. Because roads in the National Highway System exist to facilitate defense, commerce, and mail delivery, even the most fervent proponents of limited government can recognize some degree of federal control over the major roads in the country makes sense. 

ADVERTISEMENT

To send a message to states and localities, Congress should ban the use of federal funds to begin new projects on National Highway System units named for the confederacy and its actors. Congress can also immediately forbid the use of federal funds for any new signage that commemorates confederate leaders while requiring that maps, federal documents, and global positioning systems purchased or created after a future date use route numbers, which nearly all National Highway System roads have, rather than the names associated with the confederacy.

Localities that want to stick with old names could still do so, but with the federal government using route numbers, such names would likely fall into disuse. As only a small portion of roads have major federally funded projects carrying on at any given time, communities that want to debate better names could still do so. No road projects happening soon would face delay, although localities that insist on keeping confederate names for roads would see small reductions in aid since they would have to pay all signage costs themselves. For practical reasons, the side streets where most people live and many work would also be unimpacted.

These new measures would likely place no additional cost on the federal taxpayers. Indeed, they would even likely save a few dollars. The names of major roads send a message, particularly to the several million Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. Those who declared war on the United States in order to preserve slavery do not deserve honor. Congress can and should encourage the renaming of all major streets in the country named for confederate traitors and the cause they represented.

Eli Lehrer serves as the president and is a founder of the R Street Institute.