click to sign up for email alerts

Linking the Power of the Past to the Promise of the Future

grand opening of interstate in Pennsylvania

A Golden Anniversary for a Priceless Asset

June 29, 2006, marked the 50th anniversary of the day federal legislation was signed to begin one of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken: the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

The wide, relatively straight roadways in the Interstate Highway System were designed to be faster and safer than the two-lane roads that preceded them—designs that worked. And the system has brought amazing changes to our way of life:

Operation Interdependence Logo Operation Interdependence© is the premier Civilian-to-Military Delivery System© in the United States, providing a means for people at home to support our men and women deployed overseas by supplying them with a note from home and some of the everyday items that they miss. OI© provides a secure and streamlined means for the American people to deliver their well wishes to the troops without overloading the military delivery system.

National City Network Logo Take a virtual ride on the Interstate Highway System's 50th Anniversary Convoy with National City Network (NCN) - a service of the National League of Cities. NCN's new Internet TV channel, www.ncntv.org, will stream exclusive video of convoy activities, including tales from the road, features on host cities, and coverage of special guests and events.
  • It has put Americans within a few days' drive of practically everyone else in our nation, altering our willingness to travel and the way we schedule our time.
  • It has revved our economy, forever changing the way we move people and freight; it has facilitated international trade; and turned trucks into rolling warehouses.
  • It has stretched the link between homes and jobs—for better and for worse—and has redefined the relationship between urban and rural America.

And yet somehow, it has come to be taken for granted. An increasing percentage of Americans cannot remember our nation without an Interstate Highway System. And many Americans no longer experience it as the "open road" that spurred a generation of novels and films, as population growth has outstripped system expansion, and heavy use has led to congestion.

Half a century into the quantum mobility leap the Interstate System provided, it is time to reflect on what America has gained from it and ask what might need to change in future years to keep it working for us. 2006 is "The Year of the Interstate."

AASHTO, which represents the state transportation departments that built, own, and continue to operate the Interstate Highway System, is sponsoring numerous events and public activities throughout the year commemorating this important anniversary. AASHTO and its members are joining with other organizations to "Celebrate the Interstate!" and participate in forums that will help shape policy regarding the Interstate Highway System for years to come.

The Birth of the Interstate Highway System

real roads and plenty of them graphic

As America entered the 20th Century, good roads—even paved roads—were not common. Roads might lead outward from cities, even to state lines, but there was no guarantee they'd meet other roads in adjacent states. Road systems weren't marked any better than they were built, so it was not uncommon for travelers to get lost as they attempted to drive early automobiles from town to town, and it was even more common for cars and bicycles to get stuck in mud on unpaved roads.

In 1914, officials of early state transportation departments formed the American Association of State Highway Officials to bring a more orderly arrangement to the road system, establish standards for construction, and promote highway development across the country. Years later, the state officials worked with the federal government to set up a state/federal shared system for financing roads that continues to this day.

Plans for a national system of expressways were developed in 1944 by the National Highway Committee, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, and headed by Commissioner of Public Roads Thomas H. MacDonald. The plan called for a system of 33,900 miles of expressways and 5,000 miles of auxiliary routes.

Congress designated the 40,000 mile National System of Interstate Highways in 1944, but funding would not be authorized until 1952, when President Harry Truman signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1952 offering a token down payment of $25 million for the Interstates. It would be up to President Dwight David Eisenhower to lead the campaign for funding sufficient to build the nation's Interstate System.

The Convoy

picture of early rural road

Eisenhower personally witnessed the need for a national highway system in 1919, when as a lieutenant colonel in the Army he helped staff a coast-to-coast convoy of 81 military vehicles. The 1919 journey was a long and often lousy trip—62 days of heat, breakdowns, mud, bridgeless river-crossings, and rough roads. Where bridges did exist, the heavy military vehicles often broke through bridge decks. With 3,251 miles to cover between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, the convoy set a record pace—58 miles a day at about 6 mph. On today's Interstate highway, such a trip could be done in less than a week, covering in an hour the distance the 1919 military convoy needed a whole day to traverse.

During the journey, Lt. Col. Eisenhower formed the opinion that the United States desperately needed a better highway system. That conviction was only reinforced during World War II, when Eisenhower used Germany's up-to-the-minute autobahn system to move U.S. troops with lightning speed deep into Germany, putting the German army—then the enemy of the United States—on the run.

Although a system of special interstate highways had been discussed as early as the Roosevelt Administration in the 1940s, Eisenhower made it a keystone of his domestic agenda when he came into office in the mid-1950s. He named General Lucius Clay to work with a federal Interagency committee and the Bureau of Public Roads to assess needs, estimate costs and make recommendations on how to fund the construction of the system. Francis "Frank" C. Turner, who would later oversee much of the construction of the Interstate as head of the Bureau of Public Roads, served as Executive Secretary.

Although the Clay Committee's report, A Ten-Year National Highway Program, documented the funding needs, Congress failed to embrace its financing recommendation, which proposed that the system be paid for with bonds. The President's plan went down to defeat in July 1955.

Unwilling to accept a defeat, Eisenhower resumed his campaign in 1956. Creation of a new tax-based financing plan, with the federal government bearing the lion's share of construction costs, and a new map including urban interstates paved the way for passage of the program in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

The bill that was to change the face of America was signed by Eisenhower without fanfare in a hospital room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he was recovering from surgery.