Paved roads were rare at the turn of the 20th century, and cross-country trips could take weeks.
When President Eisenhower envisioned an interconnected system of highways in the United States, he could not have predicted the economic and social impact that the interstate would have on the country. A trip that used to take a day now lasts only a couple of hours, and Americans have the freedom of travel and leisure made possible by four-lane highways and exits.
At the turn of the 20th century, paved roads were rare, and mapping out a route from state to state was an arduous task that took hours of careful planning. Lost travelers on unmarked roads were common, and unpredictable weather caused cars and motorcycles to get stuck in mud holes and downpours on primitive roads.
“It was tough,” 72-year-old truck driver Bill Brooks says. “You just had to run into two-lane roads. You had no choice if you wanted to get there.”
Driver Rich Kuhlstein, 64, remembers travel before the interstate system.
“There was so much stop-and-go driving, everywhere you went,” Kuhlstein says. “Now you can drive coast to coast and never stop.”
June 29, 2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the law that led to America’s interstate highway system. At 46,837 miles, the system of highways and interstates connects people to businesses, trucks to deliveries, and families to travel destinations. Although the interstate system represents only one percent of the nation’s total roads, interstates carry more than 20 percent of the nation’s traffic today.
The road to the interstate system
A 1919 military convoy using local roads was a key inspiration that moved Eisenhower to make an interstate system part of his political agenda.
The poor condition of the roads was especially apparent to then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower, who had been in Germany during World War I and was impressed by the country’s autobahn system and the mobility that the Allies experienced as they moved through Germany in World War II. The comparison convinced Eisenhower that the United States needed a navigable system of roads and highways. Years later as president Eisenhower campaigned for the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
The idea of interstate highways had been a topic of discussion since the Roosevelt administration in the 1940s. President Roosevelt proposed three east-west and three north-south toll highways as a way to provide more jobs, and he passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938 to study the concept.
A “Master Plan for Free Highway Development” proposed a 26,718-mile, non-toll interregional highway network. In 1939, Roosevelt presented the report to Congress, but as the United States prepared to enter WWII, plans to build the interstate system were put on hold. Roosevelt feared another economic depression if American soldiers returned home from the war and could not find jobs, and he thought that construction of a highway system could provide much-needed jobs for the nation.
A new report in 1943 proposed a highway system of approximately 39,146 miles, but state and federal governments were divided over urban versus rural interests. Congress finally passed the Federal-Aid Highway act of 1944, which included 44,000 miles of road with connections in Canada and Mexico.
Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald and Federal Works Administrator Phillip B. Fleming selected the first 37,700 miles of interstate in 1947, but the government had yet to allocate funds for interstate construction. By 1952, legislation committed $25 million for 1954 and 1955, and $175 million for 1956 and 1957.
The German autobahns were originally built for military purposes, and in the 1950s the United States Air Force encouraged the government to include a 3-mile landing strip every 40 or 50 miles of interstate, even though the German autobahns were never actually used for aircraft. This is a common rumor about the interstate system, but after studying the autobahn system in Europe, researchers concluded that Air Force use of the interstate would not be feasible.
On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which increased road miles to 41,000 and opened doors for later legislation that would provide funds for the interstate highway system at its current length.
In 1990, President Bush changed the name of the interstate system to the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
Today’s interstate system
|U.S. Population||168,903,031||293,655,404 (2004)|
|Annual Vehicle Miles||627,843,000||2,829,336,000 (2002)|
|Federal Gas Tax||3 cents||18.4 cents|
|(last raised 4.3 cents in 1993)|
|Registered Vehicles||54,013,753||135,669,897 (2003)|
|Registered Trucks||10,678,612||94,943,551 (2003)|
|Source: American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials|
Every aspect of American society is affected by the interstate. For the trucking industry, the interstate system makes truckers’ jobs easier by providing a seamless way to deliver goods across the country. Jennifer Gavin, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials deputy director of communications, says the ways the interstate system fuels the American economy are incalculable.
“The interstate is a portal for personal freedom,” Gavin says. “Everything we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we buy are all made possible by the highway system. And it is something that people take for granted.”
Gavin also says it is time to invest in the interstate system again. In August 2005, Congress allocated $244.1 billion to a program benefiting not only interstates but also highways, highway safety and public transit. But the needed maintenance on the highway system would cost an investment of $376 billion, Gavin says.
“We have to invest in the infrastructure, or the economy will be affected and the system will deteriorate,” Gavin says.
Construction of the interstate system has never stopped. In 1995, the National Highway Systems Designation Act defined the Canamex Corridor as a High Priority Corridor for the movement of goods and trade through the United States and between borders. The Canamex plan is a four-lane highway that runs from Mexico through the United States to Canada, using the interstate systems in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Idaho to connect to Sonora, Mexico, and Alberta, Canada.
Since 1956, the U.S. interstate system has carried billions of travelers, truckers and commuters to destinations all over the country. What was once a futuristic plan for multi-lane highways is now the only way to travel quickly and efficiently – on the ground anyway. The “open road” has inspired songs and movies for decades; may the celebration continue for another 50 years.
Did You Know?
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officals is sponsoring a reenactment of the 1919 military convoy that inspired President Eisenhower to push for an interstate highway system.
The convoy will begin June 16 in San Francisco, picking up and dropping off vehicles as it passes through each state, and finally end in Kansas City on June 23. The convoy will also make a special stop at the Iowa 80 Truckstop in Walcott, Iowa, for an all-day celebration. Participants of the convoy as well as the general public are welcome to visit the Trucking Hall of Fame Museum and see how the interstate system revolutionized the trucking industry. Iowa 80 is the nation’s largest truckstop and the only truckstop on the convoy tour.
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