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origins of the U.S. interstate

the “greatest public works project in history”

Imagine a cross-country trip packed with stop signs, red lights, and main streets. From Boston to Baton Rouge and San Antonio to San Francisco, interstate highways make cross-country travel a relative breeze. With a healthy dose of admiration and a fondness for good trivia, we'll look into the 3 federal acts that provided us with the motorways described by the Department of Transportation as the "greatest public works project in history."

(No offense, aqueducts.)

American roads, pre-highway

Once upon a time, our roads were made largely of dirt — dirt that turned to mud anytime it rained. Granted, this wasn't much of an issue when our highest-performing vehicles were Clydesdales. But as automotive engineering advanced and, in 1908, Henry Ford began to mass produce his Model T, we needed roads that would support our rides' improved handling.

In 1909, the U.S. (and the world, for that matter) got its first mile of concrete highway. It was laid on Michigan's Woodward Avenue — which just so happened to be the street Mr. Ford himself lived on.

The 2 forerunners to the federal interstate

In general, the national interstate system dates back to 1956. But 2 prior initiatives helped make country-wide highways a reality: the Federal Road Aid Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

The Federal Road Aid Act: local roads

In 1916, the U.S. implemented the nation's first official highway financing through the Federal Road Aid Act. Prior to this, roads were considered the responsibility of each state or town, with predictably uneven results.

The Road Aid Act provided federal funds (roughly $85 million) to highway projects in various states under the condition that the states would help fund the roads through newly established state highway agencies.

When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act, it was especially great news for under-populated regions that didn't have many developed routes, as the newly funded rural roads gave residents easier access to urban areas.

The Federal Highway Act: national roads

Bad roads were more than an inconvenience to officials in Washington: they represented a real threat to national security. In 1919, a convoy of Army trucks drove from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to determine just how long it would take to travel cross-country in case of an emergency.

Two things about that trip stand out: it took an Oregon-Trail-like 62 days, and it made an impression on a young (and weary) lieutenant colonel by the name of Dwight Eisenhower.

Defense considerations aside, the government was beginning to understand the potential benefits of a national highway system: it would help states, towns, and communities grow and it would help the country transport resources from A to B more efficiently. So in 1921, the Federal Highway Act significantly increased the funds available for highway construction and aimed to create a better national infrastructure.

The interstate is born: the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act

While the previous half-century got the ball rolling, real interstate highways only appeared after President Eisenhower made national roads a priority in his first term in office and signed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956. This act overhauled the organizations that managed federal roads and led to the creation of the Eisenhower Interstate System and made it so the federal government shouldered 90 percent of the costs — the states would cover the remaining 10 percent.

One major perk of the new system? Standardized road signs to make it easier for drivers to react and obey traffic laws. Other perks included:

  • Mobility. As cars were flying out of the factories post-WWII, the interstate made travel easy and gave drivers a real sense of independence.
  • highway
  • Business/entertainment. A whole new world of options surfaced, from drive-in movies and restaurants to mall excursions and hotel stays.
  • Suburban living. Suddenly it made perfect sense to live outside the city. Being a suburbanite no longer meant being walled off from civilization, which contributed to the growth of the middle class.
  • Easy transport. The movement of commercial goods got cheaper and quicker without such heavy reliance on ships and trains.

The U.S. interstate: big roads, big numbers

Technically, Eisenhower's program is still underway. The Department of Transportation estimates that drivers have logged 703 billion (!) miles driven on the interstates. The current interstate system is 46,876 miles long, and one government estimate from 1991 put its total cost at $128.9 billion — just slightly more than the 1956 estimate of $27 billion.

As Eisenhower himself noted in his 1963 autobiography, the interstate highways really did "change the face of America."

Related links

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FDR vs. Eisenhower

Both played integral (if not similar) roles in bringing about our first official interstate system. Here's a quick rundown of their respective contributions:

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt made the first formal inquiry to the Bureau of Public Roads in 1938 to build 6 superhighways (3 east-west, 3 north-south). He authorized more than $350 million for road-building in 1940 and 1941. He also implemented legislation for the National System of Interstate Highways in 1944, which hoped to create 40,000 miles of road.

Eisenhower

The "father" of modern interstates, Ike kept the interstate system alive with the Highway Trust Fund, which provided funding after World War II drained most of it. He also created the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the main launching point for the interstate system we have today, helping standardize the way we design highways and reduce our dependence on tolls.

The verdict?

Eisenhower, who made it official. But there's no harm in calling FDR "grandpa" of the interstate, as long as we don't expect it to catch on.