Building Roads to the Future
Ever taken a road trip across the country and admired the complex system of winding highways that helped you make your way?
Most drivers take roads for granted.
Instead we complain about traffic, tolls and potholes instead of marveling at the engineering and construction behind our interstate highway system.
But a lot more than concrete and asphalt was required to create our federal network of highways.
Such a feat demanded a great vision and lots of cooperation at the federal, state and local levels.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. was on war footing, and after World War II, leaders began focusing on the need to build a transportation network that could quickly move goods and materials across the nation.
But lawmakers were never able to settle on a plan to construct superhighways from one coast to another, although they ordered and reviewed studies in their quest for possible plans.
Before the end of the war, Congress received two reports that recommended the construction of a network of “direct interregional highways” to connect cities and “meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war and the needs of a growing peacetime traffic of longer range.”
In 1944, legislators passed a highway bill that authorized designation of a 65,000-km “National System of Interstate Highways,” although the bill did little else to address the burgeoning need for an increased capacity on America’s thoroughfares.
A decade later, war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and he was a man who understood the importance of roads, perhaps more than many of his contemporaries.
Not only had he participated in the Army’s first transcontinental military convoy decades earlier, he became an admirer of Germany’s autobahn while he was in Europe during and after WWII.
The retired five-star general knew the nation needed a highway network that would increase efficiency but not sacrifice safety. He knew America’s future depended on a highway system that connected people and businesses. And he knew success depended on cooperation between federal and state leaders.
In his 1954 State of the Union address, Eisenhower told Congress that he was ready for the nation to make a commitment to “a safe and adequate highway system.”
That was easier said than done.
There were competing interests — urban, more populated areas battled rural regions for priority. Some states wanted more money and authority from the federal government.
There were lots of questions, too. Where would the roads go? Who would decide? How would the country pay for such a vast system of rural superhighways?
Congress wasn’t prepared to provide answers yet, but it authorized $175 million for the interstate system in 1954.
It wasn’t enough. Eisenhower’s vision could not be completed without a more significant commitment from the federal government and the individual states, and a plan to finance the highway system that would avoid the accumulation of debt.
Speaking on the president’s behalf, Vice President Richard Nixon told a conference of state governors that while the funding Congress provided was a good start, the nation needed a grand plan. That would require $50 billion over a decade to rescue the highway network from inadequacy and it would mean that states would have to bear some of the financial burden.
To the president’s surprise, the governors agreed.
Eisenhower formed an advisory committee and tasked it with developing the financing mechanisms to meet the challenge. Unfortunately, the committee’s plan — which included state and local monetary commitments, use of the federal gas tax and federal bonds — was a flop in Congress.
But the goal of highway system still had support. Congress just needed to sort out the details to make it happen.
After reaching a reasonable compromise on financing issues, legislators drafted a bill that combined features from several different proposals, including the establishment of the Highway Trust Fund.
The bill passed 89-1 in the Senate, by voice vote in the House, and three days later was signed into law.
Highway construction began almost immediately, and within a decade it had transformed America’s economy.