50 Years of freedom

| June 01, 2006

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.

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