Coast to coast

| July 30, 2006

Congestion and military preparedness helped drive a new national road system that would expedite travel and dodge urban traffic.

During World War II, many U.S. highways didn’t cross state lines. Traveling through major cities often required crawling through local stop-and-go traffic. Owner-operator George Ali, 75, recalls those days. He says before the interstate system was formed, it took him 16 hours to travel from his home state of New Jersey to Boston. “And when you went through a place like Connecticut, if it said 25 miles per hour, you’d better do 24 to be sure,” Ali says.

took him 16 hours to travel from his home state of New Jersey to Boston. “And when you went through a place like Connecticut, if it said 25 miles per hour, you’d better do 24 to be sure,” Ali says.

The biggest single solution to the choppy, urban-centered network unsuited to serve such a large country began 50 years ago this summer when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. While today’s level of congestion was unheard of 50 years ago, the 47,000-mile interstate system that came into being went a long way toward relieving the tedious pace of long-distance travel and delaying the onset of massive traffic jams that have become a mainstay of many large cities.

Congestion – present or future – was hardly the only reason for building the system. After a military convoy in 1919 tested the nation’s coast-to-coast mobilization – the trip took 63 days to travel 3,250 miles – it was clear to Eisenhower, then a young lieutenant colonel in the Army, that a better road system was needed for the nation’s security. Seeing Germany’s autobahns during World War II, he wrote, “had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land.”

He campaigned for the interstate highway system and ,three years after taking office, signed the Highway Act.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials was tasked with forming national standards such as numbering and signage. States across the country, fueled mostly with $200 million in federal cash, set to work, says Sunny Mays Schust of AASHTO.

Most interstates were new roads, but not all. Pennsylvania’s famed turnpike was brought into the system as I-76 and I-70, and U.S. Route 66 was folded into I-44.

“Travel was revolutionized when the interstates were built,” Schust says. “You could travel coast to coast and not hit a red light.”

Adds Ali, who now drives a 2004 Peterbilt and still hauls as far away as California from his home in the North Carolina mountains, “The interstate system helped the trucking industry and the vacation industry. It helped everybody.”

This past June, Merril Eisenhower Atwater, a great-grandson of Ike, joined a recreation of the old cross-country convoy. The leisurely paced tour, which included stops at Ike’s Kansas home, took only 19 days. And it was done all on interstate highways.

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