For America, 1806 was a great leap forward. Not because Aaron Burr tried to hatch a new Spanish colony on U.S. territory. Not because future President Andrew Jackson killed a man in a Kentucky duel. And not because Noah Webster's new dictionary included new words such as "lengthy" and "sot."

The historic American mile marker for 1806 came when President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation to create the first federally funded highway, known as the National Road. And he did it without once mentioning "shovel ready" or "stimulus."

Within 20 years, the National Road stretched 620 miles from the Potomac River in Maryland to Vandalia, Ill. Following what is now U.S. 40, it ran right through Ohio past the Capitol in Columbus. It was supposed to drive on to St. Louis, but the federal government ran out of gas money during the National Panic of 1837, and turned it over to the states to run as a turnpike.

"The Inevitable Empire," an essay from the global intelligence site Stratfor, put it this way:

"This single road allowed American pioneers to directly settle Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri and granted them initial access to Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. For the better part of a century, it was the most heavily trafficked route in the country, and it allowed Americans not only to settle the new Louisiana Territory but also to finally take advantage of the lands ceded by the British in 1787. With the road's completion, the original 13 colonies were finally lashed to the Greater Mississippi Basin via a route that could not be challenged by any outside power."

By opening the heartland of the U.S., the "Main Street of America" created the wealth, optimism, pioneer spirit and security that still define our nation, the analysis says.

But you have to wonder if that story could even be written today. We're good at the National Panic part, where the government runs out of money. Transportation projects are still critical to our wealth, security, optimism and national spirit. But our highway to the future is roadblocked by a tangle of regulations. We're no longer sure if we can get there from here.

Consider the Brent Spence Bridge. In September, President Barack Obama used it as a political prop and accused Republicans of blocking repairs on a bridge they have been working hard to replace. His speech earned "three Pinocchios" from a Washington Post fact-checker. But the visit at least raised questions "” such as "Who the heck is Brent Spence?" (a 32-year congressman from Kentucky) and "Why is it such a big deal?"

"It's the No. 1 surface trade corridor in the United States. It's incredibly important to our nation," says Mark Policinski, CEO of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). "The
economic impact of that bridge represents 4 percent of our gross national product every year."

An OKI Regional Freight Plan says the bridge handles $487 billion in commercial cargo each year. If it fails, "the OKI region would cease to function."

It's not near collapse, but it's functionally obsolete, inefficient, overloaded and hazardous, Policinski says.

Chunks of the structure have fallen into the roadway. Yet getting federal funding for the $2.3 billion project is "like a blood feud," he says. The treasury is flat broke, and competition among the states is "open warfare."

Even if we got the money today, EPA reviews and regulations will probably take nearly as long as the entire construction of the National Road.

"If we are fortunate, that bridge from planning to "¢open to traffic' will take 22 years," Policinski testified to Congress. "Every month of delay costs over $10 million."

Incredibly Important

Maybe that explains why the government's broke. Is it really necessary for the EPA to study a half-dozen alternate routes, even after the best one was chosen?

Do we need to delay for 20 years of EPA impact statements when the new bridge will sit right next to the old one?

Policinski and others say no.

They say sedimentary layers of review and regulations should be shoveled away and the EPA should be held accountable to deadlines.

That's the goal of the Mica Bill, from House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. It aims to get more miles per dollar by returning to the "Four Rs" core projects: roads, rail, rivers and runways.

No more billions for bike trails, light rail and debt-fattening pork. Instead, it would cut the red tape that has allowed environmentalists to hold critical projects hostage.

Such as Cincinnati's Eastern Corridor.

"If you're in Clermont County, you can't get anywhere in Hamilton County," Policinski says, exaggerating only slightly. As East Siders know, the shortest distance to downtown is a long, lazy parabola through Kentucky. There is no straight-line highway spoke from east to west like the north-south routes of Interstates 71 and 75.

The Eastern Corridor would do that, linking Red Bank Road and Eastgate, saving time, fuel and congestion that now clogs I-275 through Kentucky. That would supercharge the regional economy with growth, better quality of life and 10,000 new jobs, according to Clermont County Administrator David Spinney. It's a transportation no-brainer, but has been studied into a coma since 1998, held up by environmentalists and bureaucrats.

"It's a program, not a set of projects," Spinney says. "But every time we turn around it's being carved up into projects again, and that causes more delay."

And we can expect further delays, he says. Indian tribes have to be notified about ancient burial mounds in the path. Federal funding comes in drips and drops from dozens of separate faucets. And although the Sierra Club and Little Miami Inc. lost a two-year lawsuit to block a bridge over the Little Miami River, they will sue again. "No doubt, no doubt. We still expect lots of objections," Spinney said. "Death by a thousand cuts is certainly an appropriate metaphor."

"¢Process Grinds Us Down'

The National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 encourages the lawsuits and delays. "That is the federal process that grinds us down," Policinski says. "I'm not trying to short-circuit environmental protection. But we need to hold people (at EPA) accountable for responses. They can stop a project, sometimes for years, often for political reasons."

Meanwhile, Clermont County and the regional economy suffer from clogged traffic arteries that starve growth.

America's highway to a healthier economy could take a hint from 1837: Get the federal government out of the way and turn projects over to the states. "It's not apparent that the federal government knows what's best for the regions," Policinski says. "We have the worst of Big Brother. They have the authority and they don't know what they're doing."

So while Cincinnati needs funding for the Brent Spence and the Eastern Corridor, we are just as likely to get grants designated only for bike trails or streetcars, he says. "Just give us the money and let us figure out how to spend it."

Big changes are coming. Plans to expand the Panama Canal in 2014 could lure Asian shipping from the West Coast to the South and East Coast. Ohio has the rail lines to take advantage. The OKI Freight Plan predicts a total increase of 56 percent by 2040, as truck traffic grows 63 percent. At that point, your commute will not compute without a Star Trek transporter.

Or it could bring an economic boom if our region is prepared. Nearly two-thirds of the American market can be reached from Cincinnati with same-day trucking. We have rail, river barges, a regional airport and interstate highways.

Policinski argues that red-tape delays are a safety hazard "that allow dangerous conditions on our roads and bridges to exist for decades, that kill people every year. We just have to become smarter and more efficient."

Cincinnati's projects show how our "national road" is potholed with politics.

Americans from 1806 would look at the mess we've made and decide Aaron Burr's new "Burrexic' might be worth a try. Andrew Jackson would shoot someone. And Noah Webster would have to invent a much longer word for "lengthy."